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The foreign object, a gauge for posthuman intelligence?

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

"The world in which we live is, after all, a reflection of the desires and activities of men." (James Baldwin, collected essays, 1998)


We invariably are borne out of those inimitable desires of persons who went before us, who faced realities that are foreign to us and who were born in states which themselves were a reflection of the desires and activities of persons  who lived before them.


Each time around there is a state into which one is born and then there are realities which no one could foresee.  It is here, between the state of things which gave birth to us and a reality that is new, where desire orients individuals in worlds that present foreign objects, some made by humans other not.   


Sometimes we think nothing of the states into which we were born.  We climb, even soar, straight through the stratosphere without a care. We can dismiss the sets of values, the accepted knowledges, the ways of living and communicating, we can dismiss them and dissociate them as a foreign objects or we may wholly embrace them as our very sustenance,  seeking to extend these states as valuable trans generational objects, extending their logics to colonize other realms in order to continually make sense an otherwise inhospitable universe.  We might think of them as a tool by which we have managed to live through the dark days of past and by which we very much need in order to make sense of uncertainties to come.


Contrariwise, we may want to come to terms with these states, questioning even our own actions as their extensions, strange objects unto ourselves.


The realities we encounter are themselves  foreign objects.  We can privilege them over the states handed down to us from the past or we can privilege the states over foreign realities. We can seek to reconfigure our worlds in the hope of saving the states or we can seek to overturn them.  However we think of them, they are not directly observable just like the desires that brought us into being.


But, and here is an unavoidable queation: can new states be forged in the anvil of desire and circumstance and render the states into which we were born irrelevant. This seems to my untrained philosophical interest to be the tenor of the schizophrenic turn in philosophy and that of kindred philosophies like transhumanism which have inspired visions of the future where human capabilities are transcended and augmented through technology and innovation.


A dark vein of skepticism, however, wishes to counter this optimism as spectacle. Let us pivot here and leap ahead of ourselves with the intervening question: how do we orient ourselves and navigate in the midst of foreign objects? How does the state itself influence how we orient ourselves and navigate the unfamiliar. From the hip, we tend to think of ourselves as free to give it a go however we choose. But this feeling itself may be a result of the very state of things in which we are immersed.


Take the work of Hans Blumenberg, for example, on curiosity. Subtle institutions settle down in language that either prompts us forward or restrains us from entering situations of varying degrees of foreignness. Wonder is regulated at the linguistic level. We struggle to recognize the influence of such institutions inherent to the states in which we are born and how they bear on our behavior.


Furthermore, since institutions constantly undergo transformation, if we see a relationship between institutions and intelligence then we may observe that intelligence itself varies and is not merely cumulative. To grasp this point more fully let us propose that an intimate and dedicated engagement with the unfamiliar is itself a form of intelligence.


Let us assume that uncertain and unfamiliar objects we encounter, like our states and the desires that gave rise to them, are not directly observable, whether they are foisted upon us by the vagaries of time or created by ourselves. What they are themselves depends on what/who encounters them and what relationships are made of these encounters.  What the objects are then depends on a great many things which are not directly observable.


So knowing what objects are is ultimately about knowing what relationships are being generated by them.


We can boldly forge ahead like astronauts employing the latest technology in our respective domains.  But whatever advances such endeavors make do not prevent a general and broad decline in how our states themselves influence how we think and relate to the unfamiliar.  So we cannot think of technology as something that can improve our intelligence if it is not at least in part a technology of our states and how these influence our relations to the unfamiliar.


If the state can't be directly observed, then how we relate to the unfamiliar, that which is non-state, might provide valuable information about these states as well as into our individual identities. The stance of state toward non-state is mirrored in our language. And since language constantly evolves in its use, a major factor in intelligence becomes both communal and elusive, demanding extensive interaction between individuals to see what they are doing with objects. The more alien we are to one another the more important this interaction becomes. But, the more similar we are to one another means that the strangeness of other can merely hide behind the falsely familiar.


In separate work, I am exploring institutional shifts in the twentieth-century economy which suggest a decline in intelligence due to the effect of global trade structures on relations between state and non-state, between people of different states, between ourselves and our past.


For the present purposes let me ask: What if the foreign person or object could be a type of metric by which to gauge intelligence?


Think of a foreign object, or even some object about which not much is related or discussed, but which our access to is draped in casual and familiar language which dismisses our making much of it. Hans Blumenberg’s work on the social institutions housed in everyday language which belittle curiosity and wonder meticulously examines this phenomenon.


Intelligence demands at a minimum that we be aware of these institutions in language in order to liberate ourselves from their fetters but this is not a sufficient condition. Language users everywhere are relating objects in ways that are alien to us. Conditioned by the state to simplify everything to its familiar terms, we must seek some way to a more mathematical interaction with the object to allow associations and obstructions vis-a-vis other objects their own prominence. For me at least, Fernando Zalamea's work on Grothendieck provides a valuable perspective in helping navigate the intricate connections and barriers inherent to unfamiliar objects.


To illustrate the chasm between the familiar and the foreign, between accessibility and estrangement, let there be an object that's easily accessible but about which we know nothing. Upon first encounter, we might respond with confusion, inadvertently ignoring or misinterpreting it. It just doesn’t offer much to us in terms of its many relations.


If some awareness of the object is obtained, a second encounter is not necessarily anymore engaging than the first since a label may have been assigned that dissuades our interest or even obstructs an investigation into the objects relations. Labels as such can suggest familiarity or uselessness.


Before a person could truly appreciate and utilize something as valuable as honey, they had to be utterly captivated by the sheer novelty of observing a foreign object. This enchantment had to pull them away from all they thought was essential and transport them to a world previously unknown.


It might take days, months, years, or even centuries before they made connections between these objects and their benefits in terms of consumption and nutritional. Since observation is neither immediate nor complete, people needed to discuss this seemingly inconsequential object of bee behavior with others, exchanging observations, forming patterns, ideas, and theories.


Today there remains, as Blumenberg observed, despite our great leaps of technology and even greater leaps in our faith in it,  a kind of anathema to spending time speaking of "useless" objects.  How much value to do we place in discussions like those written up by Athenaeus of Naucratis about common things like salt and cumin.


Charm of the object is to the Posthuman what curiosity is to the human.  The human has institutions and states of general intelligence. The Posthuman on the other hand is taken in by the foreignness of objects merely because they inject breaks into the universal assumptions about knowledge housed in the state.


The Posthuman is contingent and accidental and celebrates the ephemerality of its many states.  Human intelligence as we have known it is more state-based compared to the general topological approach of object relations. The Posthuman knows that the real and the true are always in the making according to the relations of objects themselves and that as such there is no intelligence that is not social (in terms of their relations with humans and objects!) because object relations are not universally observable.


This is not to suggest some postmodern logic of the human, but an affirmation of the foreign object, simple or nontrivial, familiar or strange, we know not what, until we are engaged or charmed as such to let down the guard-of-state and let object relations endow us with their own logics.


Charm and skepticism as well as a promise of something we know not what, is this on the way to one could think, meet and invent the Posthuman?

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