This post expands on the philosophy of Thomas Metzinger, locating it in relation to Ray Brassier, via a call for the manufacturing and expedition of ever more elaborate forms of alienation (‘superior forms of corruption’, as it has elsewhere been called). This is envisioned as proceeding towards the abolition of the ‘self’ as the presumed center of rational commitments: as Brassier notes, we can (and should) have autonomy (‘freedom’) without selves.
Selfhood is an outmoded GUI. It has long supplied us with an extremely powerful arsenal of explanatory tools regarding behavior and introspection, yet it will at some point have had its day. Path dependency and ‘lock-in’ mean that the cost of ‘switching it out’ has as yet been high; yet technological advancements arriving in the coming decades and centuries will inevitably force us to revise our cost/benefit weighting here.
What is ‘selfhood’? Simply, selfhood arises from an organism’s transparent identification with its own cognitive model of itself. In other words, it is when a model identifies with itself. That is: when a model is ‘transparent’, its upstream processes (think of ‘transcendental conditions of possibility’ but in a neurocomputational register) are not available to cognition, and cognition therefore cannot encounter the model as model. The process therefore encounters itself not as model of reality, but as reality itself: applied to the organism’s simulation of its own body and mental states, this creates our phenomenological sense of a ‘reality’ to selfhood. The first-person perspective arises from a partial blockage within a recursive loop of third-person processes. Selfhood is, as such, a unique form of blindness arising from this lack of access to our own conditions of thought. The metaphor is one of a window: if a window is truly transparent we see straight through it, not even realising it is a conditioned frame or perspective on the world. Selfhood is, as such, a quality whereby an information process identifies with itself transparently: i.e. is unable to encounter itself as model. However, when the upstream processes of a particular model become available to the cognition, the item becomes ‘opaque’. Think of a mark, or blemish, on the window: one now encounters the window as a frame/framing.
Self-reflection, as recursive intervention, is a form of opaque cognition. In exerting agency over the cognitive process (that is, by prioritizing certain thought-episodes for attentional awareness, whilst demoting others) we are encountering these episodes opaquely. This is because the models appear as corrigible model, rather than as given reality, and are therefore available for manipulation and intervention. It is the immediacy of our intuitions that mean we do not encounter them as items capable of revision and editing. Simply: thoughts become opaque when we are able to encounter them as manipulable items; and, contrarily, aspects of cognition are transparent when we cannot intervene in them and they appear as brute realities. Manipulation arises when a model recursively embeds within itself the distinction between model and reality. And, again, the everyday ‘feeling’ of an infinitely-immediate reality to the self arrives from the computational limits placed upon this recursive process: limits of recursion that reproduce selfhood as a ‘special form of darkness’.
Note here that this theory of self-consciousness as recursive intervention does not need a reified ‘self’ as the center of operations and commitments. It can be minimally cast as a patterning that has become capable of representing itself as a pattern, and therefore is able to manipulate and intervene in the patterning-process. As Brassier notes, this facilitates the jump from pattern-governed behavior (behaving because of reasons) to rule-governed behavior (behaving for reasons). Recursive intervention is a property of a process that does not need a ‘self’ to operate: once again, ‘self’ is merely a form of blindness arising from what is beyond the range of these manipulations. (As such, it is only, as Brassier calls it, a ‘congerie of drives’.) Nevertheless, it follows from all this that the limits of recursion are negotiable: in other words, the range of manipulation can be expanded. Advanced cognitive efforts including simulation and abstraction increasingly expand this range: these resources are used in order that we become increasingly aware of the manufactured and conditioned (rather than manifest or intuitive) nature of our ‘world’, thus increasing the capacity for manipulation.
Metzinger speculates that because the higher cognitive functions of our mind, such as linguistics and advanced emotions, take more ‘computational power’ (as they are relatively recent developments: emerging perhaps as an immaterial mutation of mental representations of material tool manipulation), we compute them at a slower rate, and through this we encounter them as opaque. The faster, or more immediate, a thought-episode is the more forcefully ‘real’ it seems; the slower, or more clunky, it is the more scope we have to encounter it as a ‘model’ ripe for manipulation. Speculatively, the advent of these uniquely high-power processes first caused human self-awareness, as we became capable of representing ourselves as representations. Yet, the recursive nature of this process meant that we could progressively encounter more and more of our ‘life-world’ as manufactured or as models. Simply: cognitive development across human progress can be cast as the ongoing project of increasingly expanding the range of ‘opacity’, and this the commendation of this is identifable with what Mark Fisher once called ‘epistemic accelerationism’. Because, simply, the increasing expansion of opacity increases the scope for future expansions of opacity; and an increasing rate of change (velocity) is precisely what ‘acceleration’ is. This is the project we commit to: the ever-speeding denaturalisation of our entire thought-apparatus, and the ‘life-world’ that arises from it. Opacity is the explication of latent content; we need to accelerate the expansion of opacity; because latent content (here, transparent content) is the opposite of empowerment.
Interestingly, Metzinger uses the thought experiment of an ‘Introspective Superman’: a being with such computational speed/power that it has global access to its own cognitive processes (i.e. there is no ‘transcendental’ or ‘upstream’ that is unavailable to this particular mind)… He claims that it would have a ‘global, opaque state of consciousness that is like “lucid waking”‘. There would be naïve identification with either its models of the world or its models of the self. Thus it would have an unparalleled potential for self-engineering. Brassier and Metzinger note that the Introspective Superman would be ‘burdened with an additional computational load’, which it would ‘have to find some way of discharging without getting trapped into infinite loops of self-representation’ (because it would constantly be recursively representing itself as a representation). If it did mitigate this problem, however, it would ‘constitute a cognitive system operating with a non-phenomenologically centered model of reality’. It would be, as Metzinger calls it, nemocentric. (We ask, at this point, if we here have a blueprint for a nemocentric agent, what would the design plan for a nemocentric socius look like? A tantalizing brief, to say the least…)
The Introspective Superman provides a kind of desideratum for our so-called ‘epistemic accelerationism’. By becoming more and more aware of our cognitive apparatus, we become increasingly alienated from ourselves, yet the range of our ability to intervene upon ourselves expands. This is why it is unconditional: it involves self-laceration, the pulverisation of our everyday realities. Retrofitting it to any humanism or residual concern for human ‘self’ (as it is currently constituted) is to miss the point entirely: we dream of a day when ‘selves’ are an endangered species. Nevertheless, destitution and dislocation from manifest reality also provides epistemic lability and motility: this is why alienation is freedom. The more we learn how to encounter cognitive content as opaque, the more we dislocate ourselves from intuitive homeliness, yet the more we expand the range of our mobility and ability to intervene in this very process. Brassier relates this to the ‘involuted spiral of absolute knowing’: with each gyre of the spiral, we become yet more alienated, but also increasingly capable of epistemic motility (freedom). To become truly free we need to sacrifice our self-models at the altar of abstraction. Thus: we ought to expedite this process of alienation because it grants freedom and expands the range of recursive manipulation… but it does so at the cost of sacrificing everything within our quotidian realities: everything human, all senses of naïve and outmoded ‘self’ and ‘reality’. Brassier: ‘As it progresses, the history of what we know incorporates within itself more and more facts about the empirical structure of knowing’. This proceeds, ultimately, towards some ‘future alliance of physics and neurobiology’… Indeed, one can never leave the so-called manifest image entirely, because it is what legitimates and fuels the ‘ought’ behind this project: yet, where certain norms are ‘irreducible’, all of the psychological furniture we use to account for said norms are entirely ‘corrigible’ and capable of open-ended update and revision.
It is towards this end that we are proceeding.