With any luck, The Democracy of Objects will be released in electronic format in the next few weeks. As the semester draws to a close, I find myself increasingly thinking about what The Domestication of Humans will argue. What I want to do is provide something of a template for object-oriented social and political thought. The “domestication” in The Domestication of Humans will largely revolve around taming the hegemony the human enjoys in contemporary social and political theory.
In many respects, this will involve addressing issues of teleology as they implicitly function in so much social and political thought. In the debates that have unfolded here on Larval Subjects, Latour has repeatedly been taken to task for treating nonhuman entities such as hammers and bacteria as full-blown actors in social assemblages. Here the argument runs that insofar as these entities do not have intentionality but merely “behave” (i.e., they don’t act) they can’t be characterized as actors. The thesis here is thus that they don’t have teleology. Teleology is explicitly the domain of the living and, in particular, humans. As such, we can safely exclude nonhuman actors from the domain of social and political theory.
The extended mind hypothesis (and here I strongly encourage people to read Clark and Chalmers’s essay) goes a long way towards contesting this thesis. Insofar as mind is not what exists in the internal representational space of a brain, but rather is the assemblage that comes to be in the assemblage of brain, body, and the various media with which brain and body interact, the anthropocentric index of treating humans as the only genuine actors is already severely undermined. As Clark puts it in a memorable title of one of his books, we are “natural born cyborgs”. Brain-body’s in isolation from an assemblage of media are not minds; and insofar as they are not minds, they are not agents. Two things follow from this observation: First, the field of agency is expanded significantly. We will have as many different agencies as there are minds. As a consequence, we can’t speak simply of “humans”. Rather, the social world is populated by all sorts of different species that truly are distinct species. Second– and sadly Clark et. al do not pursue this –there’s no longer a reason to restrict agents to those minds that involve human brains and bodies. Rather, there will be all sorts of other minds populating the social world.
However, this is not enough. I need a framework of argument that allows me to discuss emergent intentional and teleological agencies that aren’t human-like. I believe I find this line of argument in evolutionary thought. To be clear, I am not here talking about the biological dimension of evolution-style arguments (though that too). No, what interests me in evolutionary thought is its ability to discuss teleology without a designer or centralized agency that is also not conscious. Evolutionary theorists perpetually speak of various organisms lacking anything resembling mind as “wanting certain things”, “grappling with certain problems”, “developing particular solutions”, etc.. They talk, for example, about how a particular plant “solves” various problems in its environment, seeks to maximize various interests with respect to other entities in its environment (the cunning of the orchid with respect to the wasp, for example), engaging in cost-benefit “analyses” with respect to availability of energy, the cost of certain solutions with respect to energy expenditures, and so on.
Most importantly, however, evolutionary biologists speak of teleological intentionalities in the absence of consciousness, and centralized control. To illustrate this point, take the example of the humble octopus (my favorite animals). Someone like Dawkins talks about genes having the aim of getting themselves replicated, such that they devise all sorts of strategies for accomplishing this task. Under Dawkins’ thesis, bodies are vehicles or machines that genes construct to get themselves replicated. Now certainly there’s no conscious intentionality among the genes, yet somehow these replicators nonetheless act in intentional ways. This point can be seen graphically (and in an upsetting fashion) in the case of the octopus. Under a vulgar reading of evolutionary theory the first thing that comes to mind is “survival of the fittest”. If we think in these terms we thus assume that the adaptations of the octopus with respect to its ability to do well in its environment and reproduction pertain to its ability to survive.
Yet when we look at the reproductive cycle of the octopus, we see something very different going on. When the female octopus finally finds a pipe or cave to lay her eggs, the rest of her days are spent perpetually cleaning those eggs and jetting water over them so they get plenty of oxygen. From that point on she never leaves the bit of clay pipe where she’s laid her eggs. As a result she doesn’t hunt or eat. Finally, when the eggs, at long last (it takes months) hatch, the mother limps out of her cave, weakened from lack of food and constant activity. Her fate is to be devoured by crabs and fish in the vicinity because she now lacks the strength to fight them off or flee. This is a stunning example of an organism being in the grip of another agency. The interests of the mother and her genes are in conflict with one another. The genes “wish” to get themselves replicated, whereas the mother, no doubt, wishes to live. There’s nothing conscious about the intentionality of these genes, yet nonetheless this intentionality functions.
Now I do not advocate the strong gene determinism of Dawkins, but rather follow Gould in holding that selection takes place at a variety of different scales and that there are all sorts of different intentionalities at these different levels of scale. What interests me here is the possibility of teleological intentionalities without consciousness. This opens the door to conceiving the existence of all sorts of teleological intentionalities, all sorts of actors, that aren’t human-like or even animal-like. It also provides us with the means for theorizing conflicts and alliances among these intentionalities. Some gave me a hard time for suggesting that cows have domesticated humans to get themselves replicated. However, through non-conscious evolutionary processes, there’s no reason not to see cows using the human love of fat as a means to rope people into raising them and thereby increasing their reproductive fitness. Given that we don’t merely inherit genes but also inherit ecological niches that humans that existed before us constructed (Sterelny), those humans that are particularly “beef/fat hungry” will tend to be selected for in engineered environmental niches “rich in cows”. In this way, certain appetites, as well as social and biological features will be selected for in human populations. The cows are literally domesticating us! And not only are they domesticating our appetites and biological features (ability to sustain meat-rich diets without overwhelming health problems), they also use us as a way of waging a war against their various predators! We end up engineering ecological niches that are to the advantage of cows and the detriment of their predators. The cows do this through a variety of evolutionary strategies that increase their attractiveness to us.
Now what’s the point of all this silliness? This logic doesn’t simply apply to things like cows, but also to technologies, language, concepts, and institutions such as corporations, cities, buildings, nations, groups, etc. Within the framework of evolutionary logic, we need not attribute consciousness to these agencies to attribute teleological intentionality to these agencies. Just as there are vectors of evolutionary development for a species like octopuses, there are internal evolutionary trajectories for technologies, language, concepts, and institutions. Crucially these agencies have their own teleological intentionalities, not necessarily in line with the intentionalities of those entangled with them. Let’s return to Andy Clark’s extended mind hypothesis, this time with respect to schools of thought in the academy. As many a layman has found reason to complain, schools of thought are often riddled with impenetrable jargon that seems completely mystifying. If you’ve ever encountered a Lacanian or a Heideggerian without being familiar with these thinkers, their discourse seems like a foreign language (and it is!) yet somehow for people inhabiting this ecological niche communication takes place.
Now for Clark, language is itself an external media that allows a variety of different minds to take place. There’s a way in which we have language precisely so we don’t have to think. Rather than attending to all the specificities of a particular entity, we instead have words that reduce that complexity. As Hegel famously said “the word kills the thing”. This is the way it is with jargon in a school of thought. Thought is offloaded on the jargon so we don’t have to think it all. A concept might be incredibly complex, yet with the signifier we need neither think about that complexity nor elaborate it. For those “in the know” it’s already thought in the jargon and requires no further development. As a result, the costly computing demands of thinking are significantly diminished by a jargon. Now the important thing is that these jargons have their own immanent telos that is independent of those that use the jargon. Jargons have their own evolutionary paths that might lead in directions very different than those intended by the inventors of the jargon. This is why, for example, a jargon can pull against the spirit of the jargon. You get, for example, Lacan claiming that the ultimate aim is absolute difference yet you get orthodox Lacanians that do all they can to prevent such difference from being produced. Likewise, the jargon devises strategies to prevent other jargons and lines of thought from infiltrating them. Lacanianism immunizes itself from cognitive psychology and visa versa. Finally, it’s as if jargons call for their own jargony innovations in much the same way that tensions between organs in an organism create selection pressures that favor, over time, certain innovations or transformations in the phenotype of that organism.
The same is true of technologies. There are internal tensions and tendencies within technological networks that call forth particular types of innovations or technological inventions. Here the crucial point is that these tensions and tendencies are immanent to the ecology of the technological network. Following Simondon and Stiegler, the innovation need not be useful or helpful to anyone (though certainly being useful and helpful is one strategy technologies devise to get themselves replicated and to evolve) to nonetheless call forth subsequent technological innovations.
So what do we buy with all this silliness? Well my hope is that this way of thinking things enhances our awareness of our ecological embeddness in a variety of different teleological intentionalities very different from our own. In my view, we do a rather poor job posing ethical and political questions because we restrict the domain of our questioning to human intentionalities and teleologies, working on the premise that political and ethical questions are restricted to conflicts among human intentionalities. As a result, we entirely foreclose all those other, nonhuman, intentionalities within which we’re entangled and that often have very different aims than we have. In our recent discussion, Wildly Parenthetical brings this out nicely in her discussion of how the intentionality of institutions in academy can be wildly (pardon the pun) different than the intentionalities of individuals lodged in those institutions. Like the female octopus that becomes the vehicle of her genes, the individual can become a vehicle for institutional exclusion without intending to do so or wanting to do so. Enhanced awareness of the entanglement of intentionalities can allow us to better formulate these questions and raise awareness of these phenomena.
Closely related to this, because we draw the field of teleological intentionality too narrowly, we have a tendency to conflate human intentions with the intentions of other entities. Marx does an excellent job underlining this point. It’s not unusual to hear American leftists talk about corporations and big business owners as being “greedy”. If one begins from this premise, then we properly address problems of economic injustice and exploitation by morally cultivating business owners that aren’t greedy. In other words, we reduce the phenomena of capitalism to moral failings. However, this way of thinking conflates the sorts of intentionality that critters like us have, with the intentionalities that govern capitalist entities. While it’s certainly true that there are greedy capitalists, being greedy need not at all be a driving force for capitalists. Rather, the intentionalities that structure capitalism are structural feature of much larger scale entities where capitalist are literally compelled to conduct their business in a particular way as a consequence of the ecological niche in which they’re lodged. Understanding this is crucial because it will play a significant role in how we combat the economic injustices that arise from this system.
Finally, this silliness hopefully significantly expands our sensitivity to the variety of intentional agents that populate the social field. A lot of good work has already been done among feminists, queer theorists, disability theorists, actor-network theorists, critical animal theorists, race theorists, Marxists, etc., in drawing our attention to the variety of actors and agencies that populate the social field, but I think we need to refine our conceptual tools to intensify this sort of research. Lurking in the background of humanist orientations in social and political theory is always the assumption of a particular type of agency that has certain generic shared features. This generic subject, of course, tends to be the white, “middle class”, western, academic male in control of his faculties (in Luhmannian terms, this is the blind spot in the “observing system” of a good deal of social and political thought). In “The Extended Mind” Clark and Chalmers present the striking example of the person suffering Alzheimer’s as a very different type of subject. This subject, however, doesn’t keep his beliefs inside his head like you and me, but rather keeps his beliefs in a notebook he can consult at any time. For Clark and Chalmers, this person’s mind is literally “brain+body+notebook”. What interests me here is the idea of a cyborg agent and the variety of different cyborgs that might populate our world and have, as a result of their cyborg and hybrid nature, have very different powers and interests. Insofar as mind is extended, Clark and Chalmers argue, assaulting another person need not simply mean assaulting their body or “person”. Rather, insofar as mind is the scaffold-hybrid, questions of scaffolding themselves become questions of politics and ethics. As many have been noting for a long time, the question of rights, for example, cannot be restricted to ownership of ones body… And this precisely because bodies are distributed throughout the world.