The new issue of Umbra(a) is now available. It has contributions from me, Graham Harman, Alain Badiou, Bernard Stiegler, Joel Goldbach, Russell Grigg, Oxana Timofeeva & Lorenzo Chiesa, Marc de Kesel, and Samo Tomšič. This is one of my favorite articles or, at any rate, one of the articles I’ve had the most fun writing. Here are the first two paragraphs:
1. Alien Intelligences
It’s not clear when it first happened. And indeed, perhaps it was always autonomous and had this self-organizing, self-developing, vampiric nature. Perhaps this essence was virtually coiled within it from the start and we simply failed to see it in the beginning. As Deleuze observes, we can never recognize what something is in its essence in the beginning (Deleuze 2006, 5), and what is important in all things only appears in the middle of their becoming (Deleuze and Parnet 1987, 39). Just as we might confuse the embryo of a human with that of a frog because of its resemblance to a tadpole were we not to know its subsequent developmental trajectory, perhaps its essence or nature as an autonomous being was obscure in its beginnings. It could be that it always contained this essence “in germ” and that we merely had to await the full-blown appearance of this essence; or it could be that, through a series of aleatory events and fateful decisions, it underwent a transition where it came to differ in kind, becoming something very different than what it was originally. As a consequence we will take a modest position, holding only that at a certain point it became increasingly apparent that it was not what we thought it was, that something new had appeared. And here it goes without saying that this transformation—if it is a transformation –might only be partially complete and could still be underway. We had thought, and often continue to think, that it was an instrument, a tool that we put to a particular use for the sake of a particular purpose, only to increasingly suspect that the utility of technology is secondary to its being as an autonomous, self-organizing, self-developing, vampiric animal drawing on humans and the natural world to perpetuate itself.
For decades SETI has sought nonhuman intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, yet perhaps nonhuman intelligent beings have lurked among us for years and we have only failed to recognize them because we confused them with ourselves. Such seems to be the suggestion of Kafka’s beloved Joseph K in The Trial and The Castle. In these novels, the juridical system and the castle are not formations of humans that serve human ends, but rather are autonomous entities in their own right. Humans, like the bones and cells that compose our bodies are elements of these larger scale objects. Indeed, the people that work for the juridical system and the castle are described as elements of these machines, as parts of these machines as in the case of the Stoker that Kafka depicts at the beginning of Amerika, and not as individual entities in their own right. As one character somewhere remarks in The Castle with respect to him and his fellows, we are all the castle, we are all parts of the castle, and we all belong to the castle. Here the Stoker is a part of a machine, a gear in its cogs, rather than the machine being an instrument that the Stoker uses for his own ends. For Kafka, far from being institutions that serve human ends and purposes, the juridical system and the castle are entities that have their own ends, inscrutable to humans unfortunate enough to become entangled within them, and pervaded by aims quite different from what we might will or desire. Entities such as Kafka’s juridical system and castle seem to have cognition, a sort of intelligence, yet it is one we can scarcely register or comprehend. Perhaps sentient entities of this sort truly exist in the world. Possible candidates for these nonhuman sentient intelligences would be entities such as corporations, institutions, social groups, and what I call “technospheres”. In this regard, the United States Supreme Court would have been correct to recognize corporations as autonomous sentient intelligences, but wrong in classifying them as persons. While these various entities would be more or less intelligent, their intelligence and nature would be quite different from our own. Indeed, as Kafka’s novels graphically show, one of the central human difficulties pertaining to these nonhuman intelligences would be the question of how it is possible to even communicate with them. Isn’t the central drama of The Trial and The Castle Joseph K’s futile struggle to communicate with the juridical system and the castle? Do we not find an analogous problem with corporations where they affect our lives in all sorts of ways without us being able to communicate or reason with them?