Archive for the Pure Theory Category

Chinese Room and the Cogito

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Chinese Room

The Chinese Room

Cogito ergo sum is perhaps the most abused three-word phrase in our contemporary intellectual sphere, so much so that most of us no longer bothered to read further on the subject and what Descartes really meant. “I think therefore I am” has been recycled over and over by changing the verb into every other activity, from shopping to tweeting. All these has of course one underlying assumption, a false reading of the Cartesian subject as a substantial subject. Truth be told, the mind-body split did not come from Descartes at all — the idea has obviously been around since the pre-Socratic era (why else would we have the narratives of heaven and hell?). The true Cartesian revolution is in fact the opposite one: that of a total desubstantialized subject.

This does not mean, again, a subject desubstantialized of of a body and becoming a free-flowing mind, a (mis)reading found everywhere today in the intellectual sphere, and especially in the area of third-wave cybernetic research. Among the most fiercest proponents of this version of Descartes is none other than John Searle, the proponent of the famous Chinese Room argument. Unknowingly for Searle, however, the Chinese Room argument is, in fact, at one point, an ultimately Cartesian paradox.

What does the res cogitans, the thinking substance, mean, then, if not the common misreading of it as a declaration of a subject of pure thought? Here, it is crucial to look at what kind of thinking the cogito is first formulated under. The thinking that brought upon the cogito is none other than pure doubt — the doubting of reality and my existence within it. This doubt is irreducible, so much so that, in what may pass as a rather desperate move, the doubt itself becomes the only positive proof of the thing that I doubt — I exist only insofar as I doubt my existence. Rather than a substance of pure thought (“that can be downloaded into computers”, as Hans Moravec put it, etc…), the Cartesian subjectivity is a void of pure self-doubt.

(It is of course true that, in Descartes, there is ultimately a mind-body duality: the subject does not depend on the world, res extensa, to truly exist. This is, however, not because they are two separate substances, but because the former is a precondition of the latter; because the cogito is a prior void around which res extensa can only emerge as such.)

Does John Searle not reproduce exactly same motive in his Chinese Room argument, but instead of doubting the true existence of his reality, he doubts the cognition of computer programs? The famous Cartesian doubt, “What if God is a liar” is here replaced by Searle’s “What if I ultimately do not understand the symbols with which I communicate, but only know its perfect grammar?” Of course, the path they take in the end is different: If Descartes were a Searlean, he would have claimed that he cannot prove his own existence; if Searle were a Cartesian, he would have acknowledged that it would not be possible for one to know grammar without knowing semantics, for ultimately meaning is generated from structure, as the Structuralists already have it.

A great answer to the Chinese Room argument, and so far the best, I think, is the systems reply, claiming that it is the whole room instead of the person that understands, because cognition could not be localized to a single source. This would be the true Cartesian revolution, that cognition is separate from any particular subject, and the true Lacanian experience of the subject as barred. Searle rejected this argument by saying that if the entire room is located inside the brain, that would not make a subject understand any more than he does, despite his being able to communicate — which, of course, presupposes an ideal subject that “truly understands.”

Here, Daniel Dennett’s reply is worth noting: Dennett claims that if such non-thinking-but-nevertheless-communicating subjects exist, they would be the ones surviving natural selection, hence we would all be “zombies”. Does this not perfectly mimic the humanists’ fear of the post-struturalist alienation of the subject from language? Dennett, perhaps rather unfortunately, then goes on to say that the Chinese Room is impossible because we are not zombies — which, again, presupposes an ideal, non-alienated subject.

Distributed cognition is where the barred subject takes its place in contemporary cybernetics, and this is, contrary to popular belief, ultimately a Cartesian move that fully separates cognition from its local basis, as the separation of mind from its carbon basis. It turns out that Descartes was not only the first Lacanian, as Žižek put it, but also the first third-wave posthumanist. It is a sad fact, thus, that leaders in the field of cybernetics overlook this fact and, in both sides of the argument, tend to return to Aristotelian ideals, to illusions of wholeness.

The State of Knowledge

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Quantum physics and consciousness

A common image depicting the wisdom of quantum physics revolution

In response to the increasing theoretical narcissism of my literary critic colleagues, I am suddenly tempted to give this topic another run over one more time. This post is pretty much Žižekian in nature, and you may have heard of it before, but I think it is one of those topics best to keep in mind if we are to maintain a good critical distance from the (rather unavoidable) temptations for the position of a pan-theory. So, what is our current state of knowledge today, compared to, say, half a century ago?

The first thing that comes to mind is obviously the standard one: the debate against capitalism. Half a century ago we are still doubting how society will be conducted in the future: we still have discussions of how communism or fascism may prevail instead. Today, event the majority of the Left does not even take the question seriously — instead, we hear all the shouts of how to make capitalism more human, and hardly ever any shout of subverting the ideology totally. We have all become Fukuyamaists, as Žižek would put it.

On the other hand, the exact opposite is going on in our biological and natural sciences. Today, we hear all the popular texts theorizing how we may end in the near future — sometimes shockingly near, as in the case of the infamous LHC, or perhaps half a century far, as in the case of global warming. What used to be a stable motherland of a generous, near-immortal planet has now become an object that is bound to give us fragile doom.

The same flip and opposition also happens in popular sciences. Half a century ago, the big topic was of course critical theory (in line with its subversive anti-capitalist political activism) — that of the so-called post-structuralism, deconstruction, French postmodern philosophy, and so on, are elevated to a level of some kind of pan-theory, an all-encompassing theory of theories and the full breadth of human epistemological experience. Today, such attitude does not prevail well beyond the all-too-often narcissistic boundaries of cultural studies and literary criticism, who, again all-too-often, engage in a pointless “deconstruction” of everything, fashionably reducing all to their historical relativity, and all the while absent from the real stage of global political activism.

Science, on the other hand, are becoming more and more popular, not only in the sense of better book sales, but also in playing the role of the pan-theorist, trusted to be able to explain human epistemology itself. I am of course talking about the increasing popularity of cognitive sciences and genetic research taken as the field that would be able to explain all nature of the human being, all their epistemological experience. Even quantum physics are now, with the likes of Fritjof Capra and films like What the Bleep series, taken as a jumping off point in the quest to legitimize science as philosophy itself — not the empirical proof of philosophy, but the transcendental return of science to ancient wisdoms, the leaving aside of the “Cartesian subject” by science.

It is indeed incredible how the entirety of our state of knowledge has progressed over the past half of the 20th century. It is never how science develops and how we gain better knowledge, closer to the truth, but how our entire notion of truth itself changes with time. Science and knowledge is not only never a neutral field, but also in itself stratified, split, and ideologically contested with one another of its parts in regards to which will play the role of the one-supposed-to-know.

What is Critical Thinking?

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

What is critical thinking? How do you conduct philosophy? What does it mean to be a Lacanian cultural theorist, as I claim to be? A while ago I was challenged by a Facebook friend because it seems that I throw names and phrases all too easily. Another day my campus colleagues asked me to enlighten what it means to do a critical thinking. And yet another day another friend asked why I, perhaps unlike most writers in the country, like to drop names and references as to whom I refer my theories to.

Critical thinking for me is not merely looking at things in a way that uncovers hidden oppressions and inner violence, by using the ontologies and methodologies of a certain favorite thinker, as many suggest. Being a Lacanian theorist, therefore, is not merely to look at things the way Lacan does. But it is not also, as yet many others suggest, to build things into something new, to bring new things into realization. What it brings is instead merely a new perspective to look at things that are already familiar to us, and what it brings into realization is the obscene, unpleasant, and sometimes downright disturbing underside of that very familiar thing.

Slavoj Žižek makes an excellent metaphor for critical thinking in one of his introductions to MIT Press’s Short Circuts series [citation needed], which is none other than the name of the series itself. To think critically is to link concepts that are not meant to link together and create a short circuit in the usual mind network of the general public, thereby making it possible to know and speak about things in a new way. The art is not the new theoretical creation itself, but the ingenuity by which old theories are combined — short-circuited — to create these new ones.

To get more specific, my own work is mainly about short-circuiting Lacanian psychoanalysis with posthuman theory. It may be best summed up, to repeat myself, “to question not what, why, or even how we deisre, but where we desire” — which is to say to contextualize desire in embodiment, an experience so fragile today in this age of rapid technological advances, networked knowledge, and disembodied social life.

Obviously, because truth is almost never pleasant, harsh responses and backlashes are only to be expected (I have been accused of being a pervert and an idiot many times). There is a Hegelian-Lacanian lesson I love most, which is that truth is always a dialectical process we create through speech, never a transcendent metaphysical knowledge to which only crazy philosophers have access. Being a Lacanian cultural theorist means that, first and foremost, one must constantly negate the illusion that he knows everything, while maintaining that society itself also understands itself only insofar as the stupid stories it tells about itself.

To put it simply, nobody really understands anything. As Lacan put it, truth has the structure of a fiction. Thus, the philosopher’s job is to create better fiction by challenging its established boundaries, questioning its implicit horizon of understanding. The philosopher the one who ultimately strives to make society suffer less; not become a more normal, healthy, spiritually enlightened society (as there is no such thing), but only to make it suffer less, by guiding it to articulate better truths.

Psychoanalysis, All too Human

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Family failing of philosophers: All philosophers have the common failing of starting out from man as he is now and thinking they can reach their goal through an analysis of him. They involuntarily think of ‘man’ as an aeterna veritas, as something that remains constant in the midst of all flux, as a sure measure of things. Everything the philosopher has declared about man is, however, at bottom no more than a testimony as to the man of a very limited period of time. Lack of historical sense is the family failing of all philosophers.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All too Human

We all know that historical consciousness starts in the beginning of the 19th century with Hegel, before strongly re-emphasized by Marx and Nietzsche in the late 19th century. But Hegel never got around to reading On the Origin of Species, which was published 28 years after his death. The stupid straightforward question I would like to pose is thus embarrassingly simple: what would Hegel have thought if he had had a chance to read it? What if he had books of Dawkins beside his collection of Thucydides lying on his bookshelf? Would he perhaps extrapolate his Phenomenology of Spirit to a Phenomenology of Species?

When did the self begin? When did the unconscious begin? When did Freudian triad and Lacanian Borommean rings begin? Psychoanalysis is bound to be hit by these questions, as new researches show mirror recognition in animals and robots, various perverse acts of animals (homosexuality, oral sex, prostitution, even necrophilia), beside older findings of animal dreams and stress disorders. While I am old enough to not entertain the possibility of psychoanalytic therapy for a poop-eating dog or your future Roomba, psychoanalysis for me has so much more to do than individual therapy and, as such, is the basis of my philosophical ontology.

A xenolinguistic psychoanalysis is thus only prudent considering the fact that we are currently in the midst of news about all the achievements of bioengineering and cybernetics (the Haylesian posthuman, the Mitchellian age of biocybernetic reproduction). Lacan was certainly aware of a historical sense of man, as were his intellectual contemporaries — but he was not, I would claim, at the very least, entertaining the possibility of a serious interrogation on Love and Sex with Robots. A recurring subject in my researches is thus an evolutionary Lacanian psychoanalysis by way of a deeper linguistic and communicational research in new realms — new media, psychedelics, animal communication, artificial intelligence, virtual sex….

As with Hegel and Nietzsche, we cannot forget that man has become. If we are to make a comprehensive cognitive mapping, we should avoid falling into the trap of non-historicity, or, in this posthuman age, the trap of non-evolutionarity. Modifying Nietzsche, I would claim that lack of evolutionary sense is the family failing of all psychoanalysts.

Fractal Signifiers: Lacan and Psychedelics?

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 9, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Image credit: (c) Jock Cooper

I recently got back in touch via Facebook with an old acquaintance, Diana Slattery (of Glide and The Maze Game). Her xenolinguistics research on “language in the psychedelic sphere” has inspired me to ponder about basically the same thing, or a more Lacanian version thereof: what happens to the Borromean rings in a state of “high”? A more practical question would be: Of what is the image above a signifier? For when one experiences actual psychedelic experience, reality as such dissolves — one enters a completely different realm of the Symbolic.

Reducing psychedelic experience to mere neurochemical reactions are but a premature response. Seeing all the theories around altered states of consciousness as the source of creativity and even language (Terence McKenna’s famous “stoned ape” hypothesis), I would argue that a psychoanalytic venture into the realm of psychedelics may prove to be a very productive research. I am not a naive idiot and believe right away those hypotheses without reading further, of course, but does the mere fact that people make those hypotheses in first place not speak volumes about the nature of psychedelic experiences? And when one takes into account Lacan’s theory of art and literature being a symptom as the fourth ring (synthome) that binds the three other Borromean rings together even in the case of Symbolic foreclusion (recall his reading of James Joyce in the later seminars), how should we read the dissolution of “common sense” reality under the effect of hallucinogens apropos the rings of Lacan? Furthermore, if we are to talk about the actual “entheogenic” — literally “God inside” — experience, does this not coincide with Lacan’s notion of the non-phallic sexuality of mystics?

I am not a new age fan or a pseudo-quantum-physicist celebrating altered states of consciousness with trippy fractal visions as the ultimate harbinger of nature’s true reality. I do suspect, however, that this xenolinguistic venture of psychoanalysis could help understand better how desire evolves. As the unconscious reveals so much of our desires, who knows what the altered states of consciousness may reveal? Perhaps it is here that we are to make meaning of Timothy Leary’s 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness in a psychoanalytic sense — digging up into the possibilities of transcendent mystical experiences instead of down into the vaults of primal instincts.

The Simulacrum’s True Lie

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , on July 12, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Jean Baudrillard is famous for his theories of the simulacrum, quoting from Ecclesiastes, which — to refresh your memories — goes as follows:

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals the fact that there is none.

The simulacrum is true.

A common reading of Baudrillard would be that the simulacrum is the empty appearance that disguises the hollow nothingness behind it. However, there is at least one problem that arise once we take this into the truly postmodern context. Frankly, are we today, in general, not already aware of the fact that there is none? If so, why should the simulacrum present itself as concealing this fact? It is here that we see the true trick of the simulacrum — the fact that it claims itself as a truth that conceals. It is therefore not the fact of nothingness itself that is the problem — it is the fact that the simulacrum has to present itself as concealing. It may conceal nothing behind it — but the verb remains. And, in a tautological turn, it is this predicate that defines the subject — the simulacrum is concealment, hence concealment is true.

The true perversion of the simulacrum thus lies in the act of proclaiming a third dimension to it, that it carries an empty world behind it — the Baudrillardian trompe-l’œil. Empty as it were, but it functions, and it functions very well precisely because it is conceived as empty, deep, impenetrable. This is why in the contemporary age we have an excessive dose of conspiracy theories, new age mysticism, individualist narcissism, and other symptoms that make global capitalism flourish in its current state of being. These modes, I argue, can only function when the simulacrum of our social sphere is conceived as a truth that conceals.

In fact, the simulacrum is not a truth that conceals. It is a lie that shows. There is nothing behind simulacrum, not in the sense that there is nothing behind it, but in the precise sense that even nothingness itself is impossible. It does not conceal because it cannot conceal — there is nothing to conceal, not even a dimension that legitimizes the linguistic possibility of concealment.

A great metaphor of this linguistic impossibility would be the case of General Relativity — recall the way Einstein treats the void in his astrophysical formulations as physical objects that can bend and stretch. Empty space, in relativistic astrophysics, is a tangible object. Opposed to this, we have absolute nothingness — that which lie beyond the universe, before the Big Bang, inside a black hole. In this second category, their very linguistic statement is a paradox — there cannot be such as “beyond” an all-encompassing universe, “before” time starts in a Big Bang, or “inside” the singularity of black hole cores. Likewise, the simulacrum cannot “conceal” — the statement is impossible. The simulacrum is flat, two-dimensional.

Recall a typical scene from old cartoons where the antagonists are trapped into running straight into a wall painted to look as if there is a tunnel through it that enters into another world. This painting does not conceal the fact that there is no world behind it — its very texture precisely shows that there is no world, it expects us beforehand to see that there is no world, and only the idiotic antagonist would believe that there is. If there is a thing it conceals, it is the fact that it does not conceal anything. The protagonists are never allowed to see through this obscene second-layer of lie, and can usually thus enter into this third dimension precisely because he knows that it does not exist, because he does not believe in it. The antagonist is the one who believes too much. The protagonist is the one who does not believes, but for whom things work precisely because he creates a self-distance from his own supposed belief. Hence ideology. Hence the true lie of the simulacrum.