The Protagorean Presumption and the Posthuman: Ceci n’est pas un calmar (Part One)

The following is the un-cut draft of the first half of my (long-overdue) paper engaging with Tom Tyler’s CIFERAE and Vilem Flusser & Louis Bec’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis (both published as part of the U of Minnesota’s Posthumanities series). The second un-cut half will follow shortly (the final paper will actually be about half the total length).

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Introduction: Trajectories, a Question of Method

The posthuman emerges as a necessarily paradoxical figure – even the definite article cannot be simply assumed. How, then, might one address that which is posthuman? Two recent texts, published as part of the influential “Posthumanities” series, consider just this question, albeit employing vastly different approaches. Here, among other things, we find explorations of method, of trajectories that, from the most dogmatic of realisms to the most cynical of relativisms, collide over issues of scientific objectivity at the crossroads of pragmatism and representationalism and of diffraction and reflection. Moreover, and however paradoxical it may seem, such questions and collisions of objectivity directly concern the definition of the fable. Last but not least, both mark important contributions to an impossible pedagogic bestiary, and to the notion of eating well.

In Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise, Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser and artist Louis Bec invite us to “harrow the hell” (43) that is the genealogy, world, culture, and emergence of a species of giant squid, alleged to have been recently caught in the Pacific Ocean. In CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers, philosopher Tom Tyler argues for a rewriting of the notion of “we.” For this, he suggests, we must first “enquire whether the assertions that humanity cannot know the world except by means of human aptitudes and abilities, that human beings will, inescapably, unavoidably be the measure of all things, are intrinsic, incidental, or entirely extraneous to a diverse range of epistemological outlooks” (209).

 

Part One: The Protagorean Presumption

Ceci n’est pas un calmar

It soon becomes clear that Flusser’s subject is not the vampyroteuthis, who is rather an heuristic fabrication geared toward helping us humans to “make sense of our current cultural revolution” (65). Indeed, the vampyroteuthic hell on offer here constitutes a grotesque glimpse of one possible future toward which our Information Age is already tending – no doubt the “soft” of software, Flusser jokes, alludes to mollusks (ancestor to the vampyroteuthis) as “soft animals” (67). The vampyroteuthis, in short, comes forth from the depths of the ocean as a device for deciphering possible posthuman futures; and the choice, it would seem, is between utopia and technocratic dictatorship,

To understand this, however, it is necessary to enter into a game built from funhouse mirrors. Certain aspects of the basic structure of human Dasein, writes Flusser, are evident in the basic structure of vampyroteuthic Dasein, while certain others appear in it “utterly distorted” (9). According to Flusser, such a “reflective game” – at once a reflection of the “game of life” (25) – avoids falling prey to the transcendental delusion that characterises scientific objectivity, as it offers an analysis of humanity strictly from the perspective of a co-being, in this case that of a highly-evolved mollusc. In this way, Flusser presents something that hesitates between ethnological treatise, philosophical study, and fabulous narrative.

At its most straightforward, Flusser suggests that we simply exchange the vampyroteuthis’ molluscular point of view for our own (35). In one sense, this is all Flusser does: an economy of method. Such an exchange, suggests Flusser, serves as a deep sea dive into the uncustomary, an estranging procedure enabling us to apprehend anew the human condition that would otherwise remain concealed behind the “shroud” of habit. The vampyroteuthis, in other words, is constructed as the opposite of the shrouded, habitual human. While partly a literary device, this approach also takes as its “conversational impulse” Heidegger’s existential analytic in general, and its famous tool analysis in particular. For Heidegger, the materiality of a tool remains invisible to its user only as long as it functions as it should (that is, ready-to-hand). Should the tool break, however, and its obstinate materiality pushes itself to the fore (present-at-hand). For Flusser, while the inverted world of the vampyroteuthis serves as a “repugnant model” for humanity, it simultaneously provides a vampyroteuthic perspective on the human world, a perspective that inevitably reveals the human to be “a model that is broken” (30, my emphasis).

Central to Flusser’s project, therefore, is the relation of the human and the vampyroteuthis. They are, he claims on numerous occasions, mirrors of each other. Hence, the relation is explicitly that of reflection. This reflexive structure, however, follows an evolutionary trajectory that guarantees the exceptional status of these mirrored worlds, key to which is Geist, understood variously as both “spirit” and “mind.” To begin with, however, Geist is always and only spirit insofar as it “belongs to the agenda of life; it has manifested itself from the time of protozoa, and it does so in humans and the vampyroteuthis in a converging manner, analogously” (24, emphasis added).

This notion of analogy functions as organising principle in both theory and practice, and thus needs to be considered in detail. Given the context, it is clear that analogue must be understood in at least two ways, both as a literary trope and as a precise term from evolutionary biology. Tom Tyler offers a clear description of the latter: analogues, he writes, “are those parts [of differing organisms] that have the same function, though they need not be the same organs” (234). Homologues, by contrast, are “the same organs, though they need not have the same function” (234). Hence, continues Tyler, an elephant’s trunk is in certain respects analogous to the human hand, but it is in no sense a homologue as it has a different phylogenetic origin. Analogy as a narrative trope, by contrast, centres in this case upon the genre of the fable. In this way, the vampyroteuthis represents both an analogy of the human through the latter’s negation and a moral mirror.

Flusser’s methodology, like his text, is thus at once analogical and fabulous, scientific and literary, the reasons for which will become clear. Returning to the human-vampyroteuthic analogous convergence, Flusser traces the evolution of the vampyroteuthis by constructing a negative version of the human at each stage of the latter’s evolution until we reach the present day and the alleged “discovery” of the vampyroteuthis in the abyssal depths of the Pacific, suitably armed with a barrage of analogous pairings that would seem to reflect the human from any number of angles. Of these, the binaries light-dark, active-passive, and problematic-impressionistic, are key to the value of the vampyroteuthis as a negative model, insofar as together they not only offer a critique of objectivity in general and “scientific objectivity” in particular, but also point toward a solution of sorts. In this, Flusser’s text is vertiginously reflexive: the model is a production of the text and the text is a production of the model. Indeed, this for Flusser is precisely the value of such a fable, that is, as a code for deciphering our posthuman future. Indeed, the production of such beasts as the vampyroteuthis is explicitly presented as a methodology superior to that currently found in the sciences. “By observing the vampyroteuthis,” he writes, “we are able to recognize an art of a different sort” (63).

However interesting this may prove to be, the analogical methodology presents some major difficulties – difficulties the overcoming of which Tyler’s book provides an excellent resource. Put simply, in starting with the human as the positive against which a negative model can be constructed, as in a mirror, we clearly do not in fact arrive at an analogical relation in the sense of having a different phylogenetic root but only a narcissistic image. For Flusser, “the reflective nature of the world–its ‘yes/no’ structure–is irrefutable” (70). Dominant, yes; habitual, yes. Irrefutable? By no means. In fact, reflection is inherently reductive: an anthropocentric optics that cuts itself off from the infinite realm of mutual and nonmutual entanglements at and between every scale of being. As Donna Haraway notes, ““[reflexivity or reflection] invites the illusion of essential, fixed position” offering diffraction as a counterpoint to reflexivity, which she sees as being played out as a methodology. As Karen Barad writes, “both are optical phenomena, but whereas reflection is about mirroring and sameness, diffraction attends to patterns of difference” (29).

Interestingly, and with a reflexivity that quickly becomes dizzying, Flusser himself argues that “reflection,” as the uniquely human methodology of philosophising, is limited, restrictive and leads toward stasis (46). As with Nietzsche, Flusser argues that concepts are mere “empty husks” that are preliminary to thinking and which prevent us from discerning “any phenomena for which we have not already established a model” (47). Moreover, this is a result of the hand, and particularly the fingers which trace “along the dissected rations of phenomena in order to comprehend and define their contours” (47). By contrast (naturally), the vampyroteuthis is pre-human–and thus posthuman–insofar as she is pre-conceptual and thus, as possessors of both tentacles and preconceptual reason, are able to teach us humans a thing or two about escaping from such an all too human methodology. In the midst of this funhouse of mirrors, it becomes easy to lose one’s footing, as well as one’s grip, as we shall see. Nonetheless such a gait and grip is unique: only because humans walk erect, insists Flusser, do they have hands, and only because they possess the hand do they conceptually reflect. This problematic human exceptionalism raises further methodological issues concerning pragmatism and representationalism on one hand, and of the human and the posthuman on the other. Ultimately, it will become necessary to ask not only if an unquestioned exceptionalism is necessary in order to engage the world of another, but also if it in fact prohibits such an encounter from ever taking place.

Flusser’s “squid,” then, is not (simply) a squid – she may in fact be a Guardian of the Platonic Republic, or even a Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (SQuID), but more of that later. First things first, though, we must consider, with Tyler, whether the fabulous figure of the Vampyroteuthis Infernalis can be reduced to an example of anthropomorphism in its most problematic form, that of the moral fable. Is not the exploitation of her exemplary status simply anthropocentric hubris which presumes the possible reduction of animal figures to the simple, remainderless anthropomorphisms of moral education, albeit here dressed up in the colours of posthumanism (after all, the notion of “dressing” certain forms of marine life, especially but not only crustaceans, for profitable human consumption is a common and habitually shrouded practice)? In short, can we ever be sure that the vampyroteuthis is not simply a cipher, one more to add to that immense list of safely muzzled animals who litter the philosophical canon, ancient and modern?

 

Pointing the finger: deciphering anthropocentrism

All of these questions and problems lead us directly to CIFERAE, in which Tyler sets out to identify and, if not necessarily rescue, then at least recognise and perhaps release the feral potential of just this litter of cipherous animals, beasts declawed and detoothed as a condition of their placement within the Western tradition. In Tyler’s five-fingered bestiary it is no coincidence that the index finger points squarely to a critique of anthropocentrism, insofar as it is precisely the indexical, the indice, which opposes such unthinking ciphers.

Cipherous animals, writes Tyler, can take one or more of three different forms: (1) nonspecific placeholders; (2) codes awaiting interpretation; and (3) symbolic characters in animal form. As an example of all three forms, Tyler recalls the paradox of Buridan’s ass, a paradox that has “recurred within philosophical circles for donkey’s years” (25). The story goes as follows: a hungry ass stands exactly equidistant from two identical bales of hay and thus, unable to find a reason to choose between the two, consequently starves to death. The first sense of the cipher is easy to understand, the ass is a mere placeholder insofar as it is not necessary that the poor animal be an ass – any animal would do. Indeed, it need not even be a nonhuman animal – numerous versions appear with the role of the cipher filled variously “by the place of the earth in the heavens, … a student between two books, a man between two knives, a courtier between two ladies” and so on (26). The two remaining forms, the code and the symbol, are a little harder to differentiate. As a code in a didactic fable, Buridan’s ass awaits interpretation insofar as she has been “employed ‘in other than the usual sense’” (28). Her position, in short, requires a decipherment that has no need of any recourse to the specifics of her existence. Finally, the ass is a cipher in the sense of being a symbolic character in animal form insofar as she is utilised as a “hieroglyph” to “convey esoteric, philosophical arguments that are intelligible to the initiated” (28). As symbols, in short, animals refer only to exemplary epistemological problems or metaphysical speculations.

Tyler’s first point, then, is that in all three forms of the cipher, nonhuman animals are not actually there as a particular animal in his or her own right. Rather, the cipherous animal “derives its meaning from its application or reference to some entirely unrelated endeavour” (28), with the result that actually existing animals are transformed into “invisible, figurative phantoms” (28). Cipherous animals appear – or, rather, appear to appear – without number throughout the history of philosophy. Indeed, the cipherous animal could be said to reach its apotheosis in the phenomenology of Heidegger, who argues that all individual nonhuman beings are in reality merely phantom individuations constituted as beings only in the polished mirror of the human Dasein.[ii]

More than this, however, pointing out these instrumental “uses” of other animals is also to point to its possible overcoming. We must, in other words, not only stop treating other animals as ciphers, but also de-cipher the cipherous animals of philosophy so as to disclose the ferae, that is, the animal in all her indexical specificity. Further, argues Tyler, to release the feral animal from her cipherous shroud – the cipherae or ciferae – is to disrupt the complacency of habitual philosophical practice. To this end, he continues, it is thus necessary to recreate the pedagogic bestiary.

Already then, we begin to perceive a significant overlap in the methodological aims of both Tyler and Flusser, despite their widely differing approaches. As regards the infernal vampyroteuthis, however, we must now consider her position in respect of Tyler’s. Can we point to her as a mere cipher, or does she emerge, in her own light, as an individual, nonsubstitutable entity? We have already noted the influence of Heideggerian philosophy and so, more specifically, the question concerns whether Flusser’s giant squid manages to escape from Heidegger’s anthropocentric circle, irrespective of Flusser’s double claim both to overcome anthropocentrism and to reclaim “objectivity.”[iii]

First of all, as regards any simple division between a cipher and an index, things rapidly become obscure, as if submerged within a cloud of sepia ink. Certainly, the vampyroteuthis is no mere placeholder: Flusser’s analysis is both complex and detailed, focusing explicitly upon the plane of the particular and complete with several pages of anatomical diagrams. As regards the second form, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis is indeed explicitly posed as a didactic fable and thus, as noted above, as a code for deciphering the (post)human future. However, it is more difficult, if not impossible, to say whether the vampyroteuthis is being employed “in other than the usual sense.” Similarly, insofar as it is the human Dasein that Flusser ultimately aims to disclose, she indeed represents a code that demands to be deciphered, however one cannot say that this decipherment has no need of recourse to the specifics of vampyroteuthic “existence,” given that the Dasein of the vampyroteuthis provides the contours of the analysis. And yet, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis is also a fable in its most traditional sense, in that its reader is expressly instructed to put her- or himself in the place of the vampyroteuthis and, in so doing, identify with an animal in order to follow the course of its normative moral lesson.

Finally, is the vampyroteuthis a philosophical hieroglyph, that is, a symbolic character in animal form? Well, she certainly figures exemplary epistemological problems but, given that she is an imaginary Borgesian beast, can one say that any actual nonhuman animals have thus become instrumentalised phantoms? And if not, is the vampyroteuthis therefore indexical? Clearly then, the cipher-index pairing cannot be considered as a simple opposition, as Tyler himself is quick to point out.

As such, we must turn instead to the two traditional modes of anthropocentrism – the evaluative and spatial on the one hand, and the epistemological and temporal on the other – in order to clarify vampyroteuthic practice. In the evaluative-spatial mode, writes Tyler, there is the “bald belief or supposition” that the human species is of a greater value than all of the others (20). Here, then, anthropocentrism is spatial insofar as humanity is placed “centre stage,” and evaluative insofar as it is “judgmental and disparaging” (21). By contrast, epistemological-temporal anthropocentrism – exemplified by Protagoras’s famous contention that “man is the measure of all things” and posed most influentially by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason [iv] – presupposes that “any attempt to explain experience, understanding, or knowledge – of the world, of Being, of others – must inevitably start from a human perspective” (21). Here, anthropocentrism is temporal insofar as the human “arrives or appears before all else,” and epistemological insofar as “all knowledge will inevitably be determined by the human nature of the knower” (21). Following Tyler’s example, I will refer to this latter mode by the shorthand phrase “human first and foremost.”

Given Flusser’s claim to have liberated the vampyroteuthis from traditional anthropic constraints, we must in the first instance locate her vis-à-vis both evaluative and epistemological anthropocentrism.

 

Saint Francis and the anthropocentrism of disgust

To begin with, Flusser charges evaluative-spatial anthropocentrism as falling prey to vulgar anthropomorphism, the basis of which is disgust. It is disgust, rather than ontogeny, that recapitulates phylogeny. First of all, claims Flusser, there is something like a vertebraic prejudice: “We feel a connection with life-forms supported by bones, while other forms of life disgust us” (11). From this initial prejudice, Flusser then suggests that the greater the distance from the humans on the phylogenetic tree, the more disgusting humans will find them. So, while reptiles are less disgusting than frogs, they are more disgusting than mammals, and so on. Hence, most disgusting of all are mollusks, that is, “soft worms” (11). Moreover, in a kind of Ballardian species-specific collective unconsciousness this hierarchy of disgust alleged to “reflect a biological hierarchy” (11?), a mirroring that results in a species-specific conception of “life” as a slimy stream that leads unfailingly to its ultimate tēlos: the human.[v] The hierarchy of disgust, while half-serious and half-parody, nonetheless discloses for Flusser both the cause and the emptiness of evaluative-spatial anthropocentrism. Humans rationalize this unconscious “feeling” into categories that “allow us to classify living beings, namely, into those that approximate us (‘incomplete humans’) and into those that depart from us (‘degenerate humans’)” (12). As such, our biological criteria are entirely anthropomorphic, “based on a hollow and unanalytic attitude toward life” (12).

For Flusser, “unanalytic” reflection, a rationalization of the irrational that is synonymous with narcissism, reaches its apotheosis in the systematization of Charles Darwin who therefore “must, in political terms, be placed on the right” (12). By contrast, the refusal of evaluative anthropocentrism belongs to the political left, and is exemplified for Flusser by Saint Francis insofar as he “does not speak to lizards, our ‘ancestors,’ but rather to birds, to ‘degenerate animals.’” (12). By speaking with an highly-evolved mollusk, and more specifically by contrasting “our human Darwin with a vampyroteuthic one” (12), Flusser could thus be said to place himself on the “ultra-left.” This comparison of course demands a coda: St. Francis’ birds were actually existing creatures, whereas the ontological category of the vampyroteuthis is rather more slippery. Nonetheless, Flusser claims to follow the leftist Saint Francis in escaping the constraints of our collective unconscious, an escape which he defines precisely as “freedom of spirit (Geist)” (12). Freedom, in this sense, is at once to escape the constraints of evaluative spatial anthropocentrism, and to break free of an unanalytic methodology based upon narcissistic reflection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, here too we find an interesting overlap with Tyler who, in place of an analogically-reflexive Darwin, seeks instead a pragmatic, memetic Darwin, as we shall see.

Turning to epistemological-temporal anthropocentrism, Flusser, like Tyler, focuses on the problem of objectivity given the inescapability of human perspective, an “epistemological problem of the highest order” (16). Nonetheless, claims Flusser, it is a problem that can largely be solved by distance. Objectivity, he argues, can in fact be salvaged insofar as the “further removed a phenomenon is from its describer, the more objectively describable it is. … Objectivity is therefore quantifiable, and a hierarchy of objectivity can be established” (16-17). Astronomy, therefore, is “very objective,” whilst psychology is “less objective” (17). However, cautions Flusser, there is a catch: “the farther away something is, the less interesting it is” and thus, “bearing in mind the taxonomy of disgust,” the more disgusting (17). By interesting ourselves in the vampyroteuthis, we therefore take up a position balanced between interest and disgust and, as such, need not disclaim “objective” knowledge entirely, although the transcendence of a “pure” scientific objectivity remains forever impossible. Here, (at least) two problems are immediately apparent. Firstly, Flusser claims to “solve” the temporalising hurdle of “first and foremost” anthropocentrism by organising the external world according to a spatial model, i.e., of proximity to the human. This, however, changes nothing as regards the possibility or otherwise of knowledge, but only further highlights the problem. Secondly, Flusser equates disinterest with objectivity, while admitting that nothing objective can be entirely disinterested, as then the object would never have even been discerned. For this is make sense, however, would require that humanity be entirely dissolved within its species-being, while nonetheless allowing for some kind of simultaneous transcendental Heideggerian boredom at the level of the entire species. And, even then, Flusser’s human species remains unable to affect an escape from what Tyler calls the “Protagorean presumption” (74). Flusser, however, has not yet done with his escape attempt.

 

Handling humans

In their respective discussions of the hand as something traditionally imagined to be uniquely human, both Flusser and Tyler have recourse to Heidegger’s famous analysis of tool use in Being and Time, as briefly referred to above. Thus Tyler notes that for Heidegger it is only in its use, that is, in its being ready-to-hand, that a tool authentically discloses itself in its specific “manipulability” (Tyler 226). Moreover, for Tyler, it is the notion of the hand, rather than “handiness,” which is “crucial” even at this stage of Heidegger’s philosophy, arguing that “it is only those beings who have hands, those beings for whom equipment manifests itself as ready to hand, who can enter into this concernful relationship to things” (226). From there, Tyler takes the necessary step of deflating such misplaced anthropocentric pride, noting how the hand, rather than “being a specialized highpoint of the evolutionary process, is in fact a rather archaic appendage” insofar as “increasing specialization … manifests as a diminution in the number of digits” (231, 233). Moreover, rather than being unique to Man, these archaic instruments are possessed by large number of diverse creatures, including pandas, frogs, and chameleons.

Flusser, meanwhile, similarly recalling Heidegger’s distinction between the ready-to-hand and the present-at-hand, moves along a very different track. According to Flusser, “the structure of the world turns out to be a function of liberated hands” insofar as the present-at-hand are “the future (of the hands): ‘nature,’” in contrast to the readyto-hand as “the past (of the hands), handled things: ‘culture’” (36-37). Hands, in short, guarantee for humanity alone the possibility of culture, of becoming “superbiological” beings. This in turn would seem to stymie from the start his stated aim articulating vampyroteuthic culture, given that the latter possess mere tentacles. We must, however, hold fire on this point. Returning to his reading of Heidegger, Flusser suggests that the difference between the present-at-hand and the ready-to-hand can be judged entirely according to an evolutionary schema: the present-at-hand “can come to be known, ‘grasped,’ in order to be handled; this is the purpose of the ‘natural’ sciences” (36-7). “Natural” science, in other words, propels humanity into its future through an ever-wider “grasp” of external reality, this all despite Heidegger’s insistence that the present-at-hand and ready-to-hand are always necessarily bound up together.[vi]

In an uncanny presque-vu of the first volume of Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time, for Flusser everything begins with the hand. It is in order to free the hands, he writes, that the proto-human first begins to walk upright, and from this all further evolutionary steps quite literally follow: the distancing of the head from the ground “dislodged” the “bony labyrinth” within the inner ear, with the consequence that space “became three-dimensional to us in a specific, Cartesian sense” (37). Moreover, this elevation of the head enables neocortical development which, as “the centre of all higher mental functions, including language,” thereafter allows the world to “become meaningful” (37).

Here, then, we are following an evolutionary trajectory that moves from the development of the hand, to walking upright, to spatiality, to language, to meaning, and thence, to time. It is in regards to the latter that Flusser offers a somewhat idiosyncratic reading of Heidegger’s tool analysis. A further consequence of walking upright, he argues, “was the division of time into three regions: the present (that which we are bumping into as we walk), the past (that which we have already passed by and experienced, and the future (that which we long for and desire, that is, where we are going)” (37-8). One can understand this in one sense as a literal rendering of the Heideggerian “way,” but Flusser offers little in the way of clarification. Why, exactly, does an upright carriage cause (or create) both temporal perception and a perception of temporality and, further, why should this temporal discrimination be restricted to the human animal alone?

The answer, I suggest, concerns an “unanalytic” – that is, at once narcissistic and reflective – conception of language. Flusser, in short, seems utterly incapable of conceiving of “language” as anything other than the narrow sense of human verbal languages, and particularly in the sense of Greco-Latin written language, which in their horizontal structure reflect the division of time. However, insofar as Flusser also attributes chromatophoric and bioluminescent languages to the vampyroteuthis, thus would seem to suggest an odd, contradictory blindness as far as nonhuman animals are concerned. What must be remembered, however, is the “invented” nature of the vampyroteuthis: the vampyroteuthis is a human creation, not only as a figure in a book, but also as its reverse image, that is, as a being constructed in the mirror of the human which, as the “original” figure, necessarily both precedes and entirely delimits the “emergence” of the vampyroteuthis who, as a consequence of this economy, inevitably takes on a complementary exceptionalism.

Put simply, Flusser’s analysis starts from, and requires, the human Dasein – a vicious anthropocentric circle that is as much Kantian as it is Heideggerian. “World,” insists Flusser, is “simply a pole of human Dasein” (38). The vampyroteuthis – along with everything else – occurs only in the human world: “It exists in the world – indeed – but only in relation to me” (38). Despite paying lip-service to the limits of anthropocentrism, then, it is clear that Flusser in fact makes no move toward an exit from “first and foremost” humanism. Equally clearly, however, Tom Tyler demonstrates that such anthropocentrism is in no way necessary to such a philosophical position. It is, rather, nothing more than a bad habit.

First, let us recap Flusser’s claim to have rehabilitated objectivity on behalf of philosophy, which in turn will bring Tyler’s resolute move beyond anthropocentric habit into sharper focus. As humans, writes Flusser, we inevitably encounter the vampyroteuthis as an object. Despite this, and despite the unconsidered complications raised by the “disgust-interest continuum” as well as the “quantification” of objectivity, we are nonetheless, insists Flusser, capable of recognising in this object “something of our own Dasein” and, “[i]nsofar as we recognize ourselves,” we can “therefore also [recognise] what is not ourselves as such” (38). In this reflection of light and dark areas, he continues, resides the possibility of reconstructing vampyroteuthic Dasein and to “begin to see with its [sic] eyes and grasp with its [sic] tentacles,” thus crossing the surface of the mirror metaphorically, but not transcendentally, in that we are not seeking to place ourselves outside the world but “relocate” ourselves in another’s (38). It is precisely this, claims Flusser, which makes of his text a fable rather than a theory, and thus, in an explicit allusion to, and apparent move beyond, Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, we leave “the real world for a fabulous one” (38).[vii]

Objectivity, then, would seem to demand that we move out of the real world and into a fabulous one, a movement of exchange requiring a metaphorical vehicle that nonetheless holds fast to its worldly tenor. If nothing else, such a demand bears heavily on questions of realism and representationalism, for which we must first properly articulate the question. To this end, let us turn to Tyler.

 

Realism, representationalism, and the convenience of aliens

As we know, Tyler’s initial objective is to establish the theoretical necessity or otherwise of an anthropocentric standpoint. His starting point, in short, is to ask if man is necessarily the measure of all things according to the very philosophical positions that claim it to be so. Ultimately, Tyler reveals in no uncertain terms that not one of these epistemological outlooks – realism, relativism, and, as we shall see, pragmatism – actually requires a first-and-foremost epistemological anthropocentrism; its widespread prejudice being nothing other than a contingent habit that must be broken.

Tyler begins by examining the realist position. A realist, he writes, holds that “a reality exists independently of the beliefs and ideas of those who come into contact with it and that true knowledge consists in the correspondence of one’s beliefs and ideas with that independent reality” (82). Hence, a realist epistemology requires three basic properties: first, belief in the possibility of truth; second, that knowledge is characterized as representation; and third, that knowledge constitutes an explanatory power. Knowledge, in short, “attempts to provide a representation of reality that is true and that will therefore explain things to us” (89). In order to highlight the problems of this position, Tyler turns to the almost infinite resource that is Nietzsche’s early essay “On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense” from 1873.[viii] This is of particular interest for us here, insofar as Nietzsche’s paper is, I will argue, the hidden – that is, encrypted – text of Flusser’s oceanic depths, a text written by the vampyroteuthis in the silence of shifting colours.

Nietzsche’s critique of realism begins with a scathing attack – in the form of a fable – on anthropocentric hubris and the delusions of human exceptionalism, arguing instead that even the smallest gnat likewise “feels the flying centre of the universe within himself” (??). Fundamental here is Nietzsche’s claim that the representation of reality is by no means limited to human animals alone, but must rather be extended to all living beings, albeit necessarily skewed by the ways of perceiving specific to each species. Somewhat paradoxically, while Nietzsche’s gnat is clearly a cipher in that she holds a place that can be taken equally well by any number of other animals, this cipherous status is itself indexical, and thus feral, insofar as this very substitutability makes the specific point that every living being, squid or gnat, human or chimp, is equally privileged and, as such, equally not-privileged.

Nietzsche’s critique goes much further, however. Insofar as the species-specific perceptions of every living being institute “metaphorical” representations of reality, none of these representations therefore represent reality truthfully. Moreover, no one representation can be considered closer to the “truth” than any other as, not only is truth unavailable, but so too is any criterion by which such proximity might be measured.

With this reference to species-specific perception, Nietzsche makes clear a second target of his paper, that of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781). As is well known, Kant posits the existence of space and time as transcendental forms of (human) sensibility, that is, as a priori presentations that are the condition of every perception and affection. Thus establishing the Transcendental Aesthetic, Kant ushers in his famous “Copernican Revolution” of philosophical thinking. As a critique of dogmatic realism’s notion of correspondence between subject and object, between idea and thing, what “the Copernican Revolution teaches us is that it is we who are giving the orders … we are the legislators of Nature” (Deleuze Kant’s Critical Philosophy 11); this “we,” of course, referring strictly to “we humans” alone.

Taking up this exclusive and excluding notion of the “we,” Tyler points out that, in fact, the real Kantian-Copernican shift of significance lies elsewhere – indeed, within the heads of aliens. It must be remembered, continues Tyler, that Copernicus, in direct contrast to Kant, shifts humanity away from its illusory central position and into the cosmological periphery. In another sense, however, Kant does precisely this when he allows for the possibility – indeed necessity – of superior alien intelligence. This introduction of alien beings turns out to be essential to the coherence of Kant’s philosophy as, writes Tyler, “[w]ithout concrete knowledge of extraterrestrial rational beings, we cannot understand the nature of terrestrial rational beings” (138). Aliens, in other words, provide for Kant the criterion for rational judgment that is otherwise lacking – a criterion that, as we have seen, Nietzsche correctly argues is unavailable, aliens or no (and, in so doing, thus brings other animals back into the world). Of course, it is interesting in itself that a philosopher of Kant’s stature and rigour will admit the possibility of intelligent life on Venus and Saturn far more readily than they will allow for intelligent nonhuman life on Earth. Indeed, what makes this interesting is the very nature of an “outside” constructed so as to “frame” both life and thought, with all the violence its divisive gesture entails and, potentially, sets in motion.

Returning to the Transcendental Aesthetic, Tyler succinctly refutes the Kantian position by showing that space and time are not in fact a priori and thus unchangeable Ur-forms of sensibility. Through a reading of Benjamin Whorf, he does this by highlighting how the predominance of spatial metaphors in English, French and German, for example, inevitably results in the objectification of time, whereas other tense forms, such as the Hopi, produce instead a very different sense of reality (150). In this way, Tyler rejoins Nietzsche in arguing for the necessity of both the diversity of perspectives and the specificity of creaturely embodiment; two sides of the same coin that together create the “corporeal nature of perception” (170).

In this way, Tyler’s analysis enables us to recognise both the huge potential, and the entirely unnecessary anthropocentrism that ultimately serves only to nullify that potential, of Flusser’s explicitly phenomenological inquiry into an oceanic world such as perceived through the fabulous tentacles of the vampyroteuthis. While this feral potential, along with its habitual yet contingent domestic confinement, will form the subject of the second half of this paper, before then we must, with Tyler, briefly consider the other two fundamental philosophical positions addressed in CIFERAE, namely relativism and pragmatism.

As Tyler points out, and despite general consensus to the contrary, Nietzsche’s antirealist perspectivism is by no means equivalent to relativism. In fact, relativism, figured by the cynical “last man,” is for Nietzsche one of the two major forms of nihilism that must be overcome (the other being the nihilism of the suprasensory ideal). According to the relativist, not only is every standpoint necessarily a partial perspective, but also, insofar as there can be no external criteria to serve as the basis for sound judgment, that all perspectives are thus of equal value. As such, standpoints exist only to be manipulated – exchanged –within a global economy geared toward the cynical accumulation of surplus value. By contrast, in rejecting the duality of representationalism in favour of embodied perception, Nietzsche shows instead that “all creatures’ perspectives will be determined by their interests and values. Any and every understanding of the world will be evaluative” (170). Consequently, Nietzsche’s transcendental species-specific aesthetic shows that all things are, only insofar they “are” mutually-affective relations, and it is the relative value of these relationships that result in a growth or a degeneration of the will to power.[ix]

Untypically, Tyler’s argument is somewhat obscure here, insofar as he claims that, for Nietzsche, only some perspectives should be overcome (171). Against this, I would argue that all value, in the strict sense, is precisely the value of revaluation, that is, of a constantly reiterated overcoming, and thus of a practice of constant openness to overcoming – the revaluation of all values, as the projected title of Nietzsche unwritten magnum opus insists. It is precisely this, as we shall see in the next part, which enables us to disclose the radical potential inhering in the practice of shedding one’s skin that Flusser names permanent orgasm and Nietzsche calls eternal recurrence.

Such practice does not involve a representation of the world. Instead, it is a mode of activity in the world and thus, as Tyler contends, an issue for pragmatism understood as an antirepresentationalist epistemology wherein knowledge does not depict the world, but rather makes possible precisely such modes of activity (209). For pragmatism, and in contrast to relativism, perspectives or “truths” must be evaluated solely in terms of their practical “explanatory power” (180); with knowledge itself understood “as an immediate, immanent element of the environment itself” (208). In this way, pragmatism shares with realism an acceptance of the utility of knowledge, albeit with a focus on the practicality of its explanatory power.

Is pragmatism necessarily anthropocentric? As with realism and relativism, Tyler once again demonstrates in no uncertain terms that the answer is no. Moreover, the pragmatic view that knowledge is practice further serves to short-circuit the representationalist impulse to enquire after the knowledge supposedly behind a given practice. Instead, to remain rigorously pragmatic is, as Tyler argues, to accept – on equal terms – the practical knowledge of myriad other creatures. The duality of representationalism, by contrast, leaves the realist forever “polishing the mirror[x] in the quest for ever-more-accurate depictions.

For us here, this telling phrase leads us back to Flusser and Bec’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis. Do they in any sense engage this fabulous creature on the rigorously democratic terrain of practical knowledge in the hope of gaining some sense of her alien, tentacular phenomenology? Or, polishing the mirror, do they remain utterly captivated? In this respect, the epigraph constitutes another telling phrase: Nil humani mihi alienum puto – “Let nothing human be alien.” As a starting point, I would suggest, it is imperative that we turn things around: Let nothing alien be human. For Flusser, however, the alienness of the vampyroteuthis is directly “analogous” to the “alienation” of the human Dasein (23). In practice, this “funhouse image” is reducible to Kant’s extraterrestrial, in that this reflected vampyroteuthic “outside” both circumscribes “the human” and serves as the (impossible) criterion for doing so.

Reading CIFERAE, however, is to learn not only that things do not have to be this way but also, and more importantly, that they should not be this way.

 

Coming soon: Part Two: The posthuman future: Eating Well, beginning with Belly Out! The movement of mouth and anus

 


[ii]  See my “Animals in Looking-Glass World”

[iii] Regarding Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle, cf Being and Time.

[iv] Even this frequent citation is a “mis-measure,” as careful readers of Plato will already be aware and as Tyler makes explicit in his final “Coda”: “Rejecting the absolute assurances of realism, Protagoras subscribed to a contextual relativism or, perhaps more accurately, to an evaluative, pragmatic perspectivism. For Protagoras, then, apes and other creatures do not aspire to be like Man, and each is its own measure of all things” (264); a reading and an approach which finds its echo in Nietzsche.

[v] For the clearest example of J. G. Ballard’s articulation of the collective human unconscious, see his first novel The Drowned World (1962).

[vi] See Being and Time section 16, especially “The modes of conspicuousness, obtrusiveness, and obstinacy all have the function of bringing to the fore the characteristic of presence-at-hand in what is ready-to-hand. But the ready-to-hand is not thereby just observed and stared at as something present-at-hand; the presence-at-hand which makes itself known is still bound up in the readiness-to-hand of equipment. … the ready-to-hand shows itself as still ready-to-hand in its unswerving presence-at-hand” (104/74).

[vii] See the section “How the ‘Real World’ at last Became a Fable,” in which Nietzsche plots a potted philosophical “history of an error” which variously divides the “authentic” thing-in-itself from an “inauthentic” epiphenomenal appearance, that is, the “real” (suprasensible) world from the “apparent” (empirical) world. Whereas Nietzsche ends in the midday moment, the “zenith of mankind,” in which the abolishment of the real world necessarily entails the abolishment of the apparent world, Flusser instead returns to the fable as a way of accessing the “objective” real, at least to a degree.

[viii] I also have explored this text in depth in my long article “Animals in Looking-Glass World.”

[ix] On the ontological priority of mutually-constitutive relation (or, more precisely, of transductive relations), see my “Animals in Looking-Glass World.” The somewhat ironic notion of a Nietzschean “Transcendental Aesthetic” must thus understand “transcendental” in the specifically Kantian sense of denoting the a priori presentations specific to each species that constitute the condition of possibility for each and every perception and affection. As to the possibility – or otherwise – of defining and thus delimiting any given “species,” this will be considered in detail in the next part.

[x] In a footnote, Tyler traces this “suggestive phrase” (209n164) back to Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

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About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

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