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Superconversations Day 32: Ivan Niccolai responds to Leela Gandhi & Bhrigupati Singh, "Botched Enlightenment: A Conversation"


Vulnerability and Promethean Becoming

Thomas Hirschhorn. Deleuze Monument, 2000. From http://www.artribune.com/

This interview is exciting from several perspectives. First, it provides important non-Western perspectives on emancipation and democracy. Second, it highlights how contingency - the focus of much contemporary philosophy since Meillasoux’s seminal book - as well as humility and emancipatory politics might be linked together as a corrective to a Promethean project. Finally, it is an insightful addition to calls for collective self-mastery in accelerationism and xenofeminism[1], such that in addition to repurposing technological innovations and altering biocultural gender disparities, should also include elevating the collective level of spiritual maturity. In her book,[2] Gandhi weaves together the themes of self-mastery and fragility, the laying bare of human imperfection and the yearning towards emancipation, as well as powerful ideas such as reason and democracy. Her recounting of a minoritarian history of the unfolding of these concepts in the 19th and 20th centuries links Eastern spiritualism, postcolonialism, and Nietzsche, in a manner deeply resonant with the central preoccupations of contemporary discussions on reason and accelerationism.

How would the post-humans of the future cope with immortality and unlimited leisure time? Or access to interplanetary travel? While techno-scientific innovations would be indispensable for achieving these ambitious aims, and the dismantling of the myth of the given not only makes such ambitions possible but demands their realization, it is pure fantasy to imagine that the psychopathologies that haunt the present would not continue to manifest themselves in other guises, even in a post-scarcity and post-mortality future. Such an observation should not serve as an argument for abandoning Promethean ambitions and eulogizing finitude, cruelty and injustice as inescapable elements of human nature, but should instead serve to highlight that the fine line between possible dystopian or utopian futures depends on whether collective self-mastery, or spiritual maturity, can grow in line with technological innovation. Even if the myth of the given is fully dismantled, and scientific nihilism is taken to its final conclusions, with the human fully ‘hacked’ and programmable as the biological machine that it is, the question still remains as to what we ought to do with this amplified power of self-transformation.

Indeed, in this respect, it is not without import how common the Spock character in the science fiction genre is. Primarily existing as already formed, a being of pure logic and dispassionate reason, the Spock character appears either in the guise of an ancient civilization whose history is rapidly explicated in the opening chapters of a narrative, or as an artificial being whose mimesis of human traits elicits comic relief and a somewhat crude mirror of ourselves, but whose story of becoming is rarely foregrounded. Leaving aside the question of whether this fictional creature of pure reason and neutral judgment represents a desirable archetype of self-mastery and reason – this character is obviously a caricature and much more interesting to examine as a symptom than as a role model – the question that begs attention is the story of the genesis of such a creature. As hilarious as we may find characters such as Spock or Commander Data, who does not secretly yearn for their impassive objectivity after a painful breakup or yet another grueling day of senseless labour alongside barely-tolerable colleagues? Or, perhaps, after the emptiness that follows the satisfaction of a desire, obsession or addiction, and the recognition of one’s powerlessness in pursuing satisfaction, no matter how self-destructive it is?

There is a remarkable similarity between the nerd fantasy of Spock and the proliferation of contemporary New Age spiritualisms, since both stem from the pain of encountering one’s limits. Kundera famously defined kitsch[3] as the depiction of a “world without shit”, without the messy content of the everyday, and it is always the other who succumbs to kitsch fantasies, or we admit to succumbing to them ourselves, but the other’s kitsch is always more hilariously ridiculous than ours. One needs only to watch a variety TV show or a comedy from a foreign country to recognise how ridiculous another’s idea of life minus shit is perceived to a foreigner. Hollywood romantic comedies and Bollywood dramas both fall in this genre, indeed, most popular culture, produced as entertainment, provides relief from the everyday through kitsch feel-good narratives. The hero gets the girl and tragic events turn out to not have been meaningless, in the end.

I previously mentioned two such genres of kitsch, nerd utopias such as Star Trek and new age spiritualism. Both idealise an ascent beyond the everyday banality of the human and its messy emotions, and both can be ridiculed for providing kitsch speculations of an ascent beyond the contradictions and torments of desire and the quotidian. Such genres maintain a focus on kitsch relief, yet beyond the entertainment of comedy or drama, their utopian dreams exemplify the Übermensch dreams we harbour of overcoming the present and ascending to greater heights, be these in the form of ancient alien races or the attainment of spiritual nirvana. Spock and Data however are baffled by and seem to lack something crucial about being human, this crucial element is human imperfection, and the moral caveat of Star Trek is one of mythologising human finitude: to be Data is to lack not only human weakness but also humanness. Nonetheless Data’s allure is irresistible, and even if this example of kitsch is culturally specific and might appear ridiculous to a non-westerner, underlying it are all too human concerns with imperfection. The converse is true, as the mere mention of eastern spirituality to a westerner will often conjure up new age caricatures and seem incompatible with reason. Regardless of the caricature, there have been many useful exchanges between the east and the west, Nietzsche being just one important example. Gandhi and Singh bring up Nietzsche’s spirituality, and it is amply accepted that Nietzsche’s Übermensch was a spiritual project, influenced by both the classical Greek philosophical tradition and Vedic texts. Abir Taha[4] examines how the Nazis were aware of the spiritual aspect of Nietzsche’s ideas, and how they were in fact much closer to his thought than the edited texts released by his sister, uncomfortably so.

The realisation of a distinguishing excellence, an excellence which if purely individualist - the main problem with new age practices - brings with it a conflicted relationship to collectivity and democracy. This relationship between Prometheanism and democracy must be examined further. The necessary correctives to maintain compatibility between these two concepts which have shaped, for better or worse, much of the past two centuries can be examined with two concepts, one a child of the Western philosophical tradition, the other from Gandhi and Singh’s account of a minor - meant in the Deleuzian sense[5], rather than to denote its relative importance - Eastern spiritual tradition: contingency and imperfection, respectively. Meillassoux’s central focus on the necessity of contingency[6] vitiates any claim towards historical purity of a people as the chosen ones who will permit the rise of the Übermensch, while also destroying the possibility of grand narratives, be they of progress or of racial purity, by deflating any myth of the given upon which to build the foundational claims necessary for constructing a grand narrative. This focus on contingency has been critiqued for leading to political indeterminacy. This critique is valid if contingency itself is mythologised, leading to contingency mysticism, however if contingency is taken as a fact of reality – amply supported by scientific knowledge - and not a value in itself, then its political implications inevitably lead to a sense of urgency in orienting oneself towards the construction of a desirable future which is not determined in advance. Meillassoux’s theological stance of the virtual god who does not exist but could possibly in the future, is a position that allows for human agency in an indifferent universe.[7]

Moral imperfectionism, on the other hand, ties collectivity firmly to self-mastery, and Ghandi and Singh speak of the doublet of ascent-descent, perfection-imperfection, such that both Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and the real historical figure of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa turn back from total liberation from everyday experience in order to help others in their ascent. This affirmation of imperfection rejects uncritical forms of utopianism which fetishize the circumvention of both conflict and becoming, while positing a critical utopianism that conceived as a process rather than an end state. If we take both contingency and imperfection as inescapable, the Promethean projects of our time must be seen as divested of any fixed endpoint and any final utopia, be it nerd space opera, Soviet communism or hippie localism. Our weakness for kitsch is just one of our many imperfections, but rather than a blemish to be scrubbed away it is due to these many weaknesses that our contingent incompleteness, our eternal work-in-progress is highlighted as what provides the conditions for further collective betterment. The best conclusion to this response essay then, is the following phrase from Gandhi’s conclusion, “We are botched, therefore we are potential.”

Ivan Niccolai holds a Master of IT Management from the University of Wollongong and is presently a Certificate Student in Social & Political Thought at The New Centre for Research and Practice.

[1] The Xenofeminist Manifesto. (2015). [online] Available at: http://laboriacuboniks.net/ [Accessed 16 Jun. 2015].
[2] Gandhi, L. (n.d.). The Common Cause.
[3] Kundera, M. (1984). The unbearable lightness of being. New York: Harper & Row.
[4] Taha, A. (2005). Nietzsche, Prophet of Nazism. Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse.
[5] Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1986). Kafka. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
[6] Meillassoux, Q. (2009). After Finitude. London: Continuum.
[7] Meillassoux, Q. (1996). L’Inexistence Divine.

She also writes in her first book, Affective Communities, which traces out a politics of friendship through similar, slightly earlier archives (an alliance of Victorian socialists and subcontinental decolonizers)—she makes the point that the late 19th century is a moment very similar to our own in leftist politics: it’s the origin of modern vegetarianism, for example, dilletantism, eccentrism, drag and dandyism, and a whole host of other lifestyle or cultural choices that were thought of as constitutive of leftist politics (Oscar Wilde is perhaps a key example) and were all sort of brushed aside by Lenin’s institutionalist politics as unserious. We could think of the crusty debate between old socialists and younger people mobilizing based on identities as a swing back of the pendulum.

It turns out that self-limitation is the ethical groundwork of the Enlightenment.<

It seems to me that Gandhi’s work is a protracted examination of liberalism’s obsession with failure and self-limitation, its affective rather than its institutional life (which people often focus on instead); Amanda Anderson, who she now works with in the same department, does much the same in examining what ethical behaviors liberalism proscribes, and especially the many paradoxical forms of disavowing agency that liberals have: for example, tolerance, which is deferring judgment indefinitely. (What she also might share with Anderson is an interest in character, or how it is that we build fictional or real selves through consistent practices.)

This is why it’s great that @IvanNiccolai you brought up Star Trek; it’s the cultural realm where liberal askesis and liberal institutions are brought into conversation (as opposed to Star Wars, for example, which is a form of neoliberal critique). Usually when I think of Spock, the rhetoric is that you have this total overachiever who’s perfect in every computational way, and yet they lack something human. This is also the critique of Artifical Intelligence—that it will miss that special oomph which is human, and if we paid attention to Blade Runner, ends up being just excuses, an exercise of discriminatory power.

What’s great about Gandhi’s writing is that she helps turn this mystic, immaterial oomph, into a specific practice, an askesis, in line with Foucault’s later work (why do we still read the early work?). What’s important about practice-oriented ethical philosophies, like Stoicism, Neo Confucianism, or Tantra, is that even though they may posit trasncendence, it’s totally grounded and finally continuous with immanent practice. I wonder though—and I’m not one to speak because I haven’t read Bergson—about how the enchantment of phusika, of sensation, might relate or not relate to the project of self-limitation?

What a wonderful essay, what a nice surprise to se Sri Aurobindo, and Sri Ramakrishna discussed. The dark legacy of Marxism, the millions killed in the Gulags and the millions killed under Mao, are never discussed by the October crowd. Looking East certainly is a better idea in my book. A wonderful book with a new cheaper Indian edition of Thomas Mc Evilly;s “The Shape of Ancient Thought.” McEvilley traces the origins of Western thought back to Jain monks and shows the movement from East to West. We would be well advised to adopt similar practices.