Loops and Augmentation: Pragmatism, Accelerationism, and Navigation
One of the core concepts of the neo-rationalist (and more broadly pragmatist) camp is that of boot-strapping – that certain capacities or processes, are capable of self-augmentation. While less colloquially discussed in terms of recursion (invoking a functionalist or mathematical context) boot-strapping indexes the material consequence of such activity or, in a related fashion, that a process can be recursively defined given it’s self-evident productivity. One instance would be discussing thought as a process of thinking which produces thoughts wouldn’t seem to get us too far except that we that this process engenders a massively complex chain of consequences for everything including itself.
Where boot-strapping indicates a metal act informing a self affecting physical act, a recursive definition seems to operate in one abstract realm yet, if this were the case, then recursion would be the same as circularity. But even in this abstract sense circularity can be avoided in terms of adding values and rules. Vicious circularity, or ill-defined self-recursion, can contain these elements but only produce nested recursion as in the case of a famous line by Hofstadter:
“This sentence contains ten words, eighteen syllables, and sixty-four letters”
Recursion begins with a ground or base case, material or world that then goes through a recursive step. A famous example: ‘0 is a natural number, and each natural number has a successor, which is also a natural number. By this base case and recursive rule, one can generate the set of all natural numbers.’ Boot-strapping then is of course not just self-reference but the utilization of the base case or ground as a process, as a process entailing consequences that itself can be added to itself.
The strangeness of recursion can be illustrated (yes hyperbolically) in stories of time travel to the past. Robert Heinlein’s story “By His Bootstraps” is one of the more famous examples of the bootstrap paradox. The paradox being if an object or information is sent to the past and received and brought to the future to where it was sent, then the origin of the object is lost. Similar issues, though not as drastic arise from sending information back (though, one could argue, that both materially change the past in such a way the the second law of thermodynamics is violated). An entertaining list of fiction and films involving time loops is here. These stable time-loops (or augmentative recursions) are well known in the series of Terminator films where each attempt to stop the consequences of the future (the traveler’s present) actually contribute to that future.
The past, taken as a process to be manipulated, is added to the future that always was but, from the perspective of the manipulator, events seem to occur in a generally novel way. In this origin becomes a moot point at least when considered in a material sense. It is the exploration of the consequences that ultimately matters in boot-strapping rather than determining the limits of the capability to manipulate. Exploration would require determining the coherent limits of the loop’s boundary or the field of manipulation or, the degree to which one explores before turning onto that process of exploration to augment it. By remaining too local manipulation of processes of thought is safer but more myopic (such as in the case of Primer) but altering the past too much may very well lead to the opposite problem.
The problem of origin, or determining an ultimately stable ground, is replaced by horizon or location which are determined through action. Hence why Schelling denies there is any material origin as such, there is no seed corn from which all things spring. What’s interesting, I think, is that in stories of time loops, whether stable or unstable, thought is an exception or a process which is minimally material in such a way that the recording of past loops is not seen as a thermodynamic violation or, such as in Edge of Tomorrow (because of an absorption of alien biology), the iterations of the loops is retained even after it is closed. But interesting tension of the film, despite and because of its repetition, is how many iterations the protagonist goes through before focusing on a scale, before shifting the parameters of the self-augmentation.
In Source Code, which Iain discussed at the opening of his talk here, the creators of a time travel device believe they are sending a consciousness back in time (into another person’s body) when they are in fact creating an alternate universe (the addition or supplanting of the consciousness alters the actuality into another future. In this sense it is somewhat ambiguous whether they are stating that time travel is impossible or if even the addition of consciousness to a past leads to a branching theory of time travel, the universe is redirected.
If there’s a binding theme between the pragmatism of Brandom, Peirce, Mark Wilson etc and the futural or accelerationist tendencies of Reza, Nick, Alex, Pete and others, it is the scale or the size of the target one places on the past to be transformed and augmented to create a future. While pragmatism is often decried for being insufficiently radical accelerationism is decried for forgetting the present for the sake of the future. I would argue however that the true discomfort lies in the willingness of both projects, and of their joint venture, to admit the manipulation of the past in constructing a future. All philosophy is grave-robbery but while some display and maintain the spoils as already consequences in themselves, it is far better to play Dr Frankenstein.
The playing out of consequences takes on a different function however since we have no knowledge of the future but only meta-cognitive rules and operations to check our explorations and navigations according to our capacities and wagers (as opposed to origins and ends). The interesting tension, for me anyway, is how conceptually determined capacities and wagers are from the point at which we find ourselves, a point which is of course arbitrary but only before we admit that our self-augmentation took serious hold of its place. This strange place, this alienated home, is how Reza Negarestani opened his text “What Philosophy Does to the Mind?” quoting Sellars’ “The Structure of Knowledge”:
“The ideal aim of philosophizing is to become reflectively at home in the full complexity of the multi-dimensional conceptual system in terms of which we suffer, think, and act. I say ‘reflectively’, because there is a sense in which, by the sheer fact of leading an unexamined, but conventionally satisfying life, we are at home in this complexity. It is not until we have eaten the apple with which the serpent philosopher tempts.us, that we begin to stumble on the familiar and to feel that haunting sense of alienation which is treasured by each new generation as its unique possession. This alienation, this gap between oneself and one’s world, can only be resolved by eating the apple to the core; for after the first bite there is no return to innocence. There are many anodynes, but only one cure. We may philosophize well or ill, but we must philosophize.”
Following this Reza argues that philosophy invents its own history in a particularly Hegelian vein. For my own project, the essentially difference between Hegel and Schelling, is that the act of invention, the act of self-augmentation, uproots is in a way that the view, the new horizon viewed, cannot be separated from history materialized. This is not, pace Zizek’s reading of Schelling, to suggest that thought or will interrupts the ontological structure of the world or of nature, but that the act made possible through that particular material world never interrupts it fundamentally but re-orients it from that particular view. That is, the unknowability of the ultimate source of the reorientation does not destroy reason but indicates that experience is not the base of reason but that reason always escorts reason. As Schelling puts it in The Grounding of Positive Philosophy:
“Reason wants nothing other than its original content. This original content, however, possesses in its immediacy something contingent, which is and is not the immediate capacity to be; like-wise, being—the essence—as it immediately presents itself in reason, is and is not being. It is not being as soon as it moves, since it then transforms itself into a contingent being.”
Nature is not a solid ground or that which trumps self-augmentation for Schelling, but a slower but more stubborn effect on the horizon viewed from the perspective of the thinker. The difference between Hegel and Schelling becomes that of setting the former’s confidence in the amount of conceptual determination possible from one perspective whereas for the latter, change in a position requires more attention to the ground one is standing (admitting that ground’s synthesis) as well as recognizing the high cost of shifting positions.
Or, put otherwise, Schelling errs on the side of analyzing the non-predicative weight of predication by which it functions, whereas Hegel further solidifies the future perspective and risks over-conceptually determining the past and the present. Philosophy, as Reza put it in the talk above, refuses to close the loop of its revenge against belief, against over-grounding. Again, Schelling worries about the labor of keeping the loop open where Hegel attempts to hold the circle, the loop, open till the last instance.
In this regard, and to return to self-augmentation, the essential difference between Schelling and Hegel is the height from which both descend to redraw the perspective from which reason is working. Hegel reaches perhaps greater heights with the assistance of conceptual certainty (powered by negativity) before descending to redraw the reasoner where Schelling, keeping experience alongside reason, makes structural wagers leaving experience to judge conceptual ones in that particular view. In otherwords, Schelling emphasizes the local extrapolation where Hegel emphasizes the global decomposition. While space-time is edge-less and if philosophy thinks time backwards – if philosophy is a time travelling device (as Reza puts it), then the different approaches to the relation of past to future, or the pragmatic and the speculative, is the locality chosen when one steps into the time machine.
Filed under: art, film, Hegel, history, Iain Hamilton Grant | 4 Comments
Tags: accelerationism, Edge of Tomorrow, Looper, mark wilson, peirce, pragmatism, Primer, recursion, reza negarestani, Schelling, self-augmentation, time travel