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The Incomputable and Instrumental Possibility


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In Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy, Lilith Iyapo, an African-American woman, awakens in a cell many centuries after the human race has effectively destroyed itself with nuclear weapons. She has been taken, together with a small number of other survivors, by the Oankali, a nomadic alien species searching the universe for new genetic information to expand their intelligence. The Oankali have repaired the Earth and now the remaining humans must combine their DNA with the Oankali’s third sex in order to redesign a new race purged of humanity’s self-destructive, hierarchical tendencies. Lilith must become the mother of a new, inhuman race in order for humans, in whatever form, to survive on Earth.

As one of the famous points of entry into Afrofuturism, Butler’s writings allegorize the normative patriarchy and the alienated condition of black people the racist culture of the United States, and reflect the Cold War’s pervasive threat of nuclear disaster. At the same time, Xenogenesis—the trilogy’s original title—introduces a new approach to the feminist critique of biopolitical instrumentality. Rather than simply refusing instrumentality, the figure of the Promethean woman here comes into being by fully acknowledging instrumentality, politicizing it, and ultimately transcending it. Instead of rejecting the dream of autonomy from the gods, Xenogenesis—or the promise of an alien beginning—implies reversing the very understanding of instrumentality. In other words, Lilith embraces her abduction and starts to reason with the instrument and from within the logic of the instrument towards an unknown unknown, a previously unthinkable and entirely alien model of subjectivation.

What might such reasoning with and from the instrument mean in an age in which highly automatized vertical apparatuses of capture, classification, and control provide a complex and distributed infrastructure for increasingly self-sufficient forms of algorithmic governmentality? What would it mean, in this particular phase of the development of machine intelligence, to take the instrument/machine seriously? What conceptual tools might we need to initiate thinking from within the machine and from within the very logic of the instrument? Could such a prospect be the basis for thinking beyond the control loops of the post-cybernetic age?

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.

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