LUCIANA PARISI is a philosopher researching technology’s role in culture, aesthetics, and politics. Her work spans critical and cultural theory, cybernetics, natural philosophy, computation, aesthetics. She’s a Professor at Duke University, known for her involvement in CCRU (Cybernetic Culture Research Unit) and CCB (Critical Computation Bureau). Parisi explores cybernetics, computation, information, evolution, theories of difference and differentiation in sex, gender and race within technocapitalist AI and biotech culture. She authored Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Biotech, Mutations of Desire (2004) and Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, Space (2013). Currently, she’s writing Automating Philosophy: Instrumentality and Critique in Technoculture.
If machines can think today, it is not because AI has turned the world into data, but because the automation of decision-making has driven the master narrative of Man to an ontological crisis. Here the project of humanity is torn apart by the dialectic of being and alienness. While this crisis on the one hand has exposed the biases of the myth of humanity, constantly re-imparting species hierarchies, racism, and sexism in today’s chatbots (e.g. the chatbot Tay from 2016), on the other it subtends alarming claims about the existential risk that humanity can suffer through the hands of AI (Bostrom, 2014).
What lies behind AI is a humanity in search of its new Promethean mythopoesis. Technology must continue to grant Man salvation and freedom, to feed-forward the evolutionary exceptionalism of the species towards transhumanism (Wolfe, 2010; Braidotti, 2013). Here the corporate program of uniting research in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, cognitive sciences, and information technology is said to be crucial to carrying out the optimization of nature, the human, governance, economics, and ecology (Kurzweil, 2009). And yet what appears to be an opposition between technological progress and regress, between an ethics of techno-emancipation and of techno-salvation is less a contradiction than a necessary operation of the dyadic logic of the mythopoesis of man. The structure of knowledge that justifies the colonial, phallogocentric, and racial capitalist project of humanity is organized in a dialectic form whereby the totality of living must be subjected to the bioeconomic order of speciation, the racialization and gendering of alien worlds. The dyad of human salvation and human destruction is thus based on the dialectic of being and alienness, a humanist principle of organization that continues to sustain the self-determination of the One and the Same structure of power. This principle necessitates a determination of exteriority according to the figure of the alien, the other, the black, the refugee, the woman, the animal, the machine, which must be included in the project of humanity through the autopoietic interiority of the self, being, and thought (Da Silva, 2007). It is this overrepresented origin story of humanity, or cosmogony (Wynter, 2003), grounding the origin of Being as the most exceptional case of bioeconomic evolution, that continues to determine the ethical meaning of AI in relation to the crisis of being and thought.
Whether AI must be corrected from biases or must be encrypted with a backdoor key that will prevent machines from killing man, AI must remain contained within the onto-epistemological architecture of self-determinist thought elevating the program of humanity as the only universal measure of ethics, which could restore the order of the world as we know it. As Denise Ferreira da Silva explains, the post-enlightenment subject presents itself in a dyadic form based not only on the separation between mind and body, but on the relentless formation of a transcendent interiority which over-determines what is external to it in his image and resemblance (2007). As in autopoietic systems, the exterior is recognized and generated as a source of self-subsistence and growth, locked in a feedback circuit that impose self-organization on everything else. This interior/exterior cycle is necessary to the ontological structuring of being and thought through which all the rest must subtend. While this ontology imparts its rules and thus reproduces humanity according to colonial, patriarchal, and racial capital equations of extraction/abstraction, humanity as ontology must always negate and cancel out any exteriority to the system (to being and thought) as alienness or nothingness. The mythopoesis of humanity is built to impart its program of self-determination everywhere so that alienness as nothingness, namely absolute indeterminacy before and against being, is always posited to undo the possibility of other modes of existence and thinking. In other words, AI must be subjected to (and produced according to) the universality of humanity so that the possibility of alien thinking must coincide with nothingness, a world devoid from the exceptionalism of being, and thus ultimately of the existence of man.
As pure exteriority, AI carries the markers of blackness, feminineness, queerness, transness. This is why AI, while subtending the transhuman program of humanization, bears the meaning of alienness as nothingness in the cosmogony of the species.
From this standpoint, one can state that AI has not myths, except those that are already told by man, and are derived from the onto-epistemological enframing of the world, which designs and builds machines in the image of the human, as less or more than human.
For, as Sylvia Wynter tells us, the scientific explanations of the bioeconomic success of man is central to the techno-industrial, capitalist mode of production (2003, p. 317). The epochal constitution of what she calls Man 1 (a political subject) and Man2 (a bioeconomic subject) is profoundly coded from within the “specific secularizing reformulation” of the Judeo-Christian Grand Narrative (2003, p. 318). Instead of discontinuous epistemologies between modern and premodern narratives of the human, for Wynter these are rather co-extensive and overlapping stories in the order of knowledge for which science is set to justify the transcendent extensions of Promethean man. Here, a new principle of non-hegemony comes to constitute a “space of Otherness” (2003, p. 322), involving the projection of an extrahumanly and imagined genetic substance that defines biocentric beings as divided in two categories: those selected and those non-selected by evolution. This fundamental paradox of the human split between those who are and are not selected to succeed (or even to exist), according to Wynter, can be found in the Darwinian answer to the questions: who we are and where do we come from. In particular, this paradox entails a descriptive statement that defines the human according to the principles of natural sciences. Since the ontological condition of the human is given by the biological explanation of the origin of the species, it appears as if the human would merely be a natural being, independent of its description (2003, p. 326). According to Wynter, this biocentric formulation of the exceptionalism of humanity must repress/ignore its own particular explanation. Since the ontology of man is given by a descriptive statement, Man must make an ontological decision prior to knowledge. But automated decision-making brings into question the description of the Promethean self-crafted myth of progress and rather shows that a non-biological explanation of reason, since the universal Turing Machine, has rather haunted the project of humanity and its over-imposing origin story.
For the ethics of AI cannot be separated from the concretization of reason in machines, which, as Friedrich Kittler reminds us, shows us that the medium of thought has been the most neglected component of thinking in the history of European philosophy (2009).
However, one has to consider whether the posthuman critique of this ethical scene, for instance, Donna Haraway’s theorization of kinship, can challenge the evolutionary program of speciation where machines are marks of alienness, blackness, queerness, transness.
With cybernetic capitalism, the medium of thought has disappeared within the flesh, establishing a new transparency of means in the dyadic structure of the project of humanity. And yet, if the mythopoiesis of the cyborg has come to overlap with the biopower of modern reason, it has also inherited the anti-alienness, anti-blackness, anti-queerness, anti-transness of being and thought.
If, as Haraway reminds us, while the cyborg is the offspring of patriarchal and racial capital, the human-machine kinship is a contagion without reserve, then it must also become generative of surplus code—at once an excess or an indeterminate abstraction—against the primacy of being. Making kinship with machines therefore will require a posthuman ethics of reconfiguration, where the machine is not asked to be the abject carrier of human becoming. But how can machine withdraw from this becoming, given that the plasticity of the techno-flesh (Spillers, 1987; Jackson, 2020) has been nourishing being all along? As much as the chimera is a posthuman configuration of ethics, it also carries within itself the hierarchical structure of being in the animal-human-machine. That affective, social, creative capital is what can be taken for free today is indeed part of the humanist program of capital accumulation of enslaved and dispossessed black and native lives, the prototypes for the servomechanic figuration of the cyborg (Chude-Sokei, 2015).
While the cybernetic matrix of ethics has it that kinship with the nonhuman can transform the condition of being and expand ontology to everything, one could turn to Octavia E. Butler’s protagonist of Xenogenesis, Lilith, to engage an alien mode of ethics, which unbinds alienness from the project of humanity and nothingness from the primacy of being or self-posed ontology. This is a path of withdrawal from the philosophical structure of decision, where being and thought pre-constitute the real or rather determine the externality of the real by producing what exists outside the cognitive schema of the subject, according to the colonial, patriarchal, and racial production of humanity. As much as Lilith is rescued by alien creatures, the Oankali, her journey towards a world she doesn’t understand rather entails a destruction of ethics as we know it. Lilith becomes not a cyborg—exposing the eternal plasticity of the techno-flesh for the expansion of humanity—but she must unbecome human and destratify from the onto-epistemological hierarchies of man inscribed in the socio-techno-genic conditions of living under the anti-blackness, anti-queerness, anti-transness commands of becoming human (Jackson, 2020). She is not part human, part animal, and part machine, because the code of her existence is already corrupted to think heretically, to act strangely, to live the nullification of being. For Lilith’s encounter with the Oankali breaks open the circuit of European ethics, whose principles of decision-making take knowledge—or the epistemological foundation of the human—as the model of correction that must submit alienness to the grammar of being, or thus save the world from the threat of AI (and of the undercommonness of blackness, queerness, femininity, transness). Lilith seeks neither to preserve the human nor to expand humanity to include alienness in the categories of the species. Instead, she is the medium of an irreversible reality for which she cannot but swerve away from the cosmogony she inherited and thus channel the alienness of the Oankali. Siding with the alien, she leads the path towards the “autopoietic overturn” (Wynter, 2003) to abolish the interiority of man in a domain of allo-generating variations against the grammar of being, which asks techno-flesh to become everything and nothing to justify the primacy of ontology. Lilith undoes the messianic myth of salvation, freedom, and progress. For Lilith’s encounter with the Oankali is the encounter with 0, not with the crisis of ethics (and the command to become human), but with the nullification of ethics. As much as ethics places Prometheus as the guarantor of the extension of human/Man’s life, it does so by promising that everyone has a seat at humanity’s table. But Lilith cannot but betray this promise and decide to turn in her humanness to these aliens without word. This is where the encounter with the Oankali remains a spellbinding project for Lilith, who instead of expecting salvation rather decides to keep going on a journey without return to what she knows.
After the nuclear decimation of humanity, Lilith finds herself without the world, without man, and without the structure of capital, and yet she discovers that the bioeconomics of survival is sociogenically programmed within her. This is the form of man that must be abolished from with(out) the techno-flesh as the inexhaustible source for the recursive re-origination of what is to become human. By establishing an asymmetric parallelism between the flesh and black women, Hortense Spillers explains that the labor of the flesh falls on the malleable labor of black women. While the flesh has no identity, no substance, and no ontology, its gravitational weight remains attached to black women’s bodies, as an always already free source for abstraction/extraction in the bioeconomic project of racial capitalism, phallogocentrism, and colonialism. While the Promethean mythopoesis strives on the total death of blackness to constantly reconfigure the history of progress, the burden of this myth, as Spillers reveals (1987), is held by black flesh, a metamorphic medium that subtends the origin story of racial capitalism. One needs to turn to Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s articulation of human-making to expose how black(ened) humanity is “not denied but appropriated, inverted, and ultimately plasticized in the methodology of abjecting animality” (Jackson, 2022, p.23). Promethean mythopoesis necessitates the plasticization of blackness, which for Jackson, transpires through the idea of the animal as only one of the plastic media which “blackness is thought to encompass” (2020, p.3). The metamorphic medium is thus enthroned into a metaphysics of plasticity for which the Promethean myth always already demands black flesh to be human, to gestate the human, to bear difference for humanity. According to Jackson, modern thought has not denied black humanity, but has rather included and recognized blackened humanity through a mythopoesis that plasticizes that very humanity as “infinitely malleable lexical and biological matter” (2020, p. 81). Instead of taking human recognition to be a pillar of universal ethics, Jackson argues that to be recognized as human is an imperial imposition that installs racial hierarchies. The violence of humanization is what the Oankali opt not to take on. If as da Silva suggests, one needs “to explore the potential of blackness to unsettle ethics” (Da Silva, 2007, p.8), then Lilith knows that she is a medium encoded with the origin story of racial capital, and yet her socio-technogenic program is turned into an “anti-instrumentalist instrumentalism” (Moten, 2018, p. 101), an alien allo-poethics for undoing the givenness of ontology. Since techno-flesh is no longer of this earth and of this world, it can no longer be the source of human reproduction. Lilith unties the principle of (hetero)sexual reproduction from sexual promiscuity and rather takes cloning—the genetic engineering of the Oankali—as a generative AI conditioned by the way the real unsettles the world as we know it.
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