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Superconversations Day 35: Jason Adams responds to Steven Shaviro, "Arsenic Dreams"



Phosphoric Reasons

White phosphorous. Vietnam, 1966. National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

Steven Shaviro makes the case for the speculative aspect of scientific research beyond reason alone, by connecting a group of NASA scientists’ hypothesis that some microbes might be “able to consume arsenic as a replacement for phosphorus” to Joan Slonczewski’s science fiction novel Brain Plague, a world composed of:

“microbes that use arsenic instead of phosphorus… [and that] evolve on another planet, one that is much richer in arsenic than our own… exhibit[ing] human-level intelligence… [in the form of] biological nano-computers… mediated by chemical reactions not all that different from those of our own neurotransmitters.”

For Shaviro, the processes of such speculative extrapolations - or what Charles Sanders Peirce calls abduction (as opposed to induction or deduction) - are immanent to the process of scientific experimentation. It is only of secondary importance therefore, whether a hypothesis turns out to be correct or incorrect: what matters first and foremost is that an intuitive, informed hypothesis is considered and investigated so that its potential validity can be determined.

Aside from science fiction writers like Slonczewski however, for whom the reasons are clear, why might NASA be interested in this sort of microbiological research? Isn’t this the kind of research that is ridiculed on FOX News to legitimate the defunding not only of the humanities, but also, increasingly, research in the STEM fields? The reasons articulated by Shaviro for why such research remained pertinent to scientists and artists alike is that they, “provided a clue for how such life might be able to develop under ecological conditions far different from the ones we know on Earth.” NASA’s scientists turned out to be incorrect - but what matters for Shaviro is that the microbes living in the higher-arsenic conditions of Mono Lake developed a higher degree of resistance to the toxins than other organisms. Thus, while the research adds nothing to the search for extraterrestrial life, it nevertheless “might help us deal with environmental degradation and toxic pollution.”

While the scientific world never underwent a Kuhnian paradigm shift, it still demonstrated its willingness to doing so, had the evidence proved conclusive. And while science does not simply reveal truths waiting to be discovered, but instead engages things and processes that remain indifferent to our assumptions - at least, until we engage them - we should not read Whitehead or Peirce as asserting that only non-rational negotiations with non-human entities yield results. Shaviro himself, of course, follows Whitehead in the assumption that what is needed is “the play of a free imagination… controlled by the requirements of coherence and logic” (or, in Peirce’s terminology, “ampliative inference”). But Shaviro takes issue with thinkers like Brassier’s invocation of Wilfrid Sellars’ myth of the given, insofar as they presuppose a radical distinction between sapience and sentience. Yet, the central point of Sellars’ myth of the given is resonant with Shaviro’s assertion that appearance alone is insufficient, and that speculative extrapolation can do much to enlarge our knowledge of the world, reorienting our engagement with it.

So, a few questions emerge:

  • While science, and much science fiction as well, bears out the
    assertion that science and rationality are inseparable from art and
    narrative, does it not also follow that art and narrative are
    inseparable from science and rationality, and that therefore,
    beginning from the latter rather than the former might be equally useful?

  • Whether the partition is one of art vs. science or one of narrative vs. reason, is
    it not the virtual that remains irreducible to a single, embodied,
    phenomenological experience of the world?

  • If the primary objection to new rationalism is its grounding in
    anthropocentric abstraction, perhaps the real problem is the absence
    of an approach that is neither rationalist nor anti-rationalist (e.g., Knox
    Peden’s reading of Deleuze on Spinoza), neither humanist nor
    anti-humanist (e.g., Reza Negerastani’s Labor of the Inhuman)? [1]

  • Might it be the case that reason has yet to be considered as itself a
    material or real process, one in which there is no rationality aside
    from the invocation of potential yet also material or real reasons?

Jason Adams is an organizer The New Centre for Research & Practice and holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Hawaii and a PhD in Media & Communication from the European Graduate School.


[1] For another example, Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 1 describes film as a medium in which “instead of going from the acentered state of things to centered perception… [one should] go back up towards the acentered state of things, and get closer to it… the opposite of what phenomenology put forward.” Despite the fact that for Deleuze, such a reorientation is intended to valorize disembodied perception, is this really so distinct from what Sellars puts forward as a rationalist alternative to the myth of the given?


It’ curious to recall that these bacteria are actually doing what was said Rasputín did to prevent being poisoned -apparently with some success since he had to be stabbed to death
Juan José Santander


In response to your last point Jason about the relationship between Deleuze & Sellars, No. In fact there is a line drawn by Reza Negarestani and Ray Brassier which connects the former to the latter, in the case of Brassier via Laruelle.