The Incomputable and Instrumental Possibility - Journal #77 November 2016 - e-flux
If it is true that the individual is caught in a circle of continuous undulation between enslavement and liberation, trapped in the paradox of simultaneously being her own master and slave, can learning from the logic of the machine provide a path for a new, alien beginning? And if it is true that instrumentality as such has developed its own logic through the evolution of machine complexity, shouldn’t we attempt to think the instrumentality of the post-cybernetic individual beyond the dualities of means and ends? Doesn’t the instrument itself possess its own “ends,” as Lilith does? In her case, working through one’s own instrumentality becomes a form of engineering an entirely new origin that embraces and places trust in its yet incomputable, hyper-denaturalized nature. The question is what other natures—and natures’ others—such radical non-dualism would require.
Instead of succumbing to the overwhelming logic of control, data positivism, and the paranoid reasoning of the algorithmically enhanced white-man cogito that is the total myth of humanism, we wish to embrace what Isabelle Stengers calls the possible against the probable. This text is thus merely an outline, an open invitation, and an attempt to instigate a critical project based in practical knowledge, which could point towards the construction of what we could call “the incomputable subject.” In a sense, this is an invocation of a subject that comes to being by way of reclaiming the contingent as a mode of reasoning and as the field of the political. It is a subject that considers its means and its ends in the same plane of becoming.
The new subject can only be constructed from the hard labor of alienation, which includes understanding the logic of instrumentality, politicizing it, and transcending it through usage itself. This requires building a non-paranoid imagination, and a readiness for a radical denaturalization of both humanness and subjectivity as we know it, just as it happens with Lilith in Octavia Butler’s story.
Perhaps the general diagnosis of our current condition as one of all-pervasive data governmentality might actually be missing something.3 The statistical “qualculation” subtending the infrastructure of data positivism and predictive governmentality implies the triumph of an entirely new kind of empiricism in which data is “liberated” from the static condition of the given. Data is now stretched to embrace potentiality, indeterminacy, and contingency. This new synthesis of empiricism and statistics includes the indeterminacies of information as a potential source of the unexpected. In other words, the relentless recalculations of data guarantee the possibility of discovering something new.
What is there to take from the very logic of contemporary techne? Can there in fact be something in the very techne of the subject, in the very “affectable” workings of the instrumental, that can go beyond the normative, universal subject of history and reinvent the subject of the political by reclaiming the unknown unknown?
But perhaps it is precisely this servo-mechanics of the post-cybernetic individual that indicates the way back into reason and politics by other means; that is, by repurposing othered and alien reasoning for new ends. The genealogy of such alien reasoning in instrumentality can be traced back to the famous Turing machine, which demonstrated that techne—the instrument itself—has its own logic and meaning, independent from the metamathematical language of universal knowledge compressible into iterative algorithmic sequences. Turing’s project collapsed the opposition between knowledge (theory, ideality) and knowing (practice, techne). Instead of the implementation of ideas into processing tools, with the emergence of computational logic, instrumentality itself became a productive activity or logical enquiry.
With the mechanization of thinking and the servo-mechanic image of a causeless, empty subject, always already piloting an ever-more-efficient machine, we obfuscate a profound truth about human thinking in general: namely, that instrumentality (and not ideal truths) is the very process of subjectivity in practice.
The implementation of logic in machines therefore did not only mark the end of reasoning and the failure of deductive truths, but also the very dawn of instrumental thinking: the origination of an alien activity of automated cognition. This precious discovery of alien logic should not be conceded to the paranoid automated Leviathan of data prediction and control. Rather, we should find in it the tools to critically reclaim the unknown and the incomputable from the paranoid apparatuses of the white-male subject of humanism, and equally from a mindless trust in the error.
the logic of abduction, introduced by Charles Sanders Pierce at the beginning of the twentieth century, might have the potential to generate non-paranoid imagination and agency.4 With abduction, it is possible to create semiotic chains (from non-signifying signs to meanings) driven by hypotheses that propose the best explanation from unknown situations. This could be a starting point for non-inferential practices, where materiality and truth are not the same, but both partake in a larger continuum of modes of reasoning (abduction-induction-deduction).
In other words, abductive reasoning, as opposed to the inductive testing of existing “knowns,” helps us to explain, and not discount, the causal process that conditions and constrains the generation of new hypotheses. In contrast to the automated cognition of the regime of induction, abduction allows for an alternative view of instrumentality as transcending the function of data-matching. Abduction is an alien system of cognition. For a new, double-helix-like becoming of reason and imagination, an alienation of the very myth of origin must be enacted.
The instrument declares itself a subject by insisting on its own irreducibility to the very instrumental function that it nevertheless undeniably possesses, since this is what gives its refusal power in the first place.
Lilith understands that humans need to recode themselves and construct an imaginative logic of becoming more/less-than human. The becoming of the inhuman here starts with a new theory and searches for the least familiar hypothesis, constructing worlds of possibility by denaturalizing the human from within the instrumental. Far from achieving definite ends, this alien beginning is rather conditioned by the means of its engineering, where opposite realities, mismatching desires, and complex reasonings reveal the inhumanness of the original. Instead of replacing the human with an ex novo form of being, Octavia Butler shows us how to supply the human with futurity. An alien beginning of the new subject calls for abduction, and for the generation of new hypotheses of instrumentality, one that acknowledges the history of techne whereby the machine has been able to elaborate strategies of autonomy from and through its own use.