The following originally appeared in the written portion of my MFA thesis. I have plans to continue publicizing the writing from this project as the process of writing, along with visual investigation, continues to be central to the mode of inquiry here.
An important aspect of scientific thinking is the commitment to a mind-independent reality1. In order to take the claims of science seriously, in the spirit in which they are stated, one must assume that those things in the universe which science attempts to describe are really real, and have their existence independent of human observers and human conceptions. Steven Shaviro makes the case that science then moves forward through a ‘negotiation with nonhumans’ rather than through the imposition of human will2. In order to explore the elusive, subterranean recesses of materiality, it is necessary to form a complicit relationship with matter itself--allying with a nonorganic intermediary to probe the abyss of the nonorganic. We require a xenoscope.
In the erratic architecture of this xenoscope, an issue for the human petitioner emerges: the xenoscope does not perceive the universe in a way that resembles human perception. There may be some baseline similarities such as the detection of electromagnetic waves. This means that visuality may be a commonality, but here operates as a lowest-common denominator. There would be much in the perceptual array of the xenoscope that simply does not overlap with the human visual experience, even allowing that the two agents both perceive in a primarily visual manner (which they likely don’t). Some trivial examples: humans do not perceive in infrared or ultraviolet, nor do they perceive x-rays. Perhaps the xenoscope is capable of these things. Perhaps it is
capable of registering the presence of electromagnetic waves in ways wholly different from the (phenomenological and meaning-making) structures of visuality we are familiar with3.
This raises a problem of translation. Any translation of information from the hypothetical xenoscope to the senses of the human petitioner will be, at best, partial. Not only that, but the information thus amenable to translation would itself be garbled in ways counter-intuitive to our habitual reception of sensory experiences. So, on the one hand we are closed off from the phenomenological world of the xenoscope, missing vast chunks of data that simply cannot be transformed comprehensibly to fit a corresponding human faculty; and on the other hand, we must twist and contort our usual ways of ‘reading’ the world in order to learn an altered, highly specialized way of interpreting new information. An example might be the practice of reading x-ray crystallography, historically used to identify the helical structure of DNA4. The casual observer would be unable to make any sense of the information presented by an x-ray crystallographic readout. Training is required before this practice can yield reliable information. In this case, one xenoscopic agent is the x-ray itself, which ‘detects’ or ‘perceives’ the world in a way radically different from any human perception. The training required to decipher a crystallographic image is yet another manifestation of the negotiation with nonhuman agents required by science.
A second problem is raised in light of the first: we must acknowledge that the xenoscope itself does, in fact, have a phenomenological world of its own. We must acknowledge the reality of an object-object perception mediating our own. The xenoscope will have its own perceptual agenda, it will experience a constellation of aesthetic seductions peculiar to it, it will probe the world on its own terms5. It is analogous to an embedded journalist in a blackout zone, investigating what draws it, capturing and translating its particular experiences, and reporting back what it deems fit to report-- and always utilizing the full length of its leash*. The human petitioner’s job is to gather up the scraps of data that we are lucky enough to have come through the filter of translation. Recognizing the primacy of the object-object relationship in this triad of perceived-perceiving intermediary-end perceiver opens us up to the reality that all of the relationships in this alliance are between objects6. The human being is the third object; the human is merely a variety of nonhuman7.
One last question is relevant here. If the theoretical xenoscope is designed and constructed by humans, how can we take seriously the above claims? A synthetic probe is of our making, a human extension, and therefore it exists for us, does it not? In reality, the synthetic probe indexes our negotiation with nonhumans at a more intense level8. First, in order to build a probe which explicitly does not perceive in a human manner, we must create something fundamentally unhuman. The radically unhuman character of the probe itself reveals the extent to which our own human technics are in fact unhuman at their root9. Not only do they (our technological objects) violate our intentions, thwart our will, take on unpredictable shapes, and contaminate across our rigid cultural boundaries, but they must be nonhuman from the beginning in order to extend us in any useful way. We cannot improve or extend human capacities by simply adding more ‘human’ to ourselves.
To acknowledge the object-object relationship between probe and universe is to acknowledge a fundamental unhumanness in the universe. To attempt to reinforce the boundary between human and nonhuman, to immunologically reify the unique ‘humanness’ of the probe by claiming it as a prosthetic (literally an extension of the human body) is to undo the intended intellectual work in the very same move--it is simply to parse the demarcation between human and nonhuman somewhere within the human body itself--it is to make the human body the next theatre for the promiscuous admixture between human and nonhuman10. There is no end to this problem of boundary placement because the humanist cartography cannot be permanently imposed on the universe: it will not afford boundaries of this kind. To acknowledge the probe as unhuman is to acknowledge the fundamental nature of thought as unhuman11.
The xenoscope is always unhuman and is always operating for itself.
*none of this is intended to unduly anthropomorphize the xenoscope. The example operates, as all useful anthropomorphizing does, to metaphorize a phenomenon that we have no linguistic or conceptual precedents for12. The xenoscope would not exhibit a human-like psychology, nor is it even likely to be alive. For all that, it does encounter the universe in its own way, and that way is primary for our purposes.
1 Discussions on the status of the claims of science, and arguments for accepting a mind-independent reality can be found in Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, (Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), as well as the introduction to Steven Shaviro, The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
2 Steven Shaviro, “Arsenic Dreams,” E-Flux, 2015, http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/texts/arsenic-dreams/
3 An extended argument for thinking through the ‘perceptions’ between nonhuman (particularly nonliving) agents can be found in Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What it’s Like to be a Thing, (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), particularly the chapter titled “Metaphorism.”
4 See Roman Kazantsev and Michelle Towles, “X-Ray Crystallography,” UC Davis Chemwiki, 2016, http://chemwiki.ucdavis.edu/Core/Analytical_Chemistry/Instrumental_Analysis/Diffraction/X-ray_Crystallography
5 Bogost, Alien Phenomenology.
6 This is one of the core tenets of Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, which is laid out in many of his books and lectures. A specific reference would be Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object, (Zero Books, 2011).
7 Eugene Thacker, “Black Infinity.”
8 This is a recurring theme in Steven Shaviro, “The Universe of Things,” in The Universe of Things.
9 Eugene Thacker, “Black Infinity.”
10 Thacker describes this intellectual move as ‘immunological’ in reference to this boundary-policing impulse, whether it be between the human and the nonhuman, the living and the nonliving, etc. See Eugene Thacker, “Biophilosophy for the 21st Century.”
11 Eugene Thacker, After Life.
25 See Bogost, Alien Phenomenology.
arts educator, painter, drawist, heavy metal enthusiast, and long-time Lovecraft fan