According to Darko Suvin’s famous formulation, sf is best understood as the ‘literature of cognitive estrangement’: an estranging literature because it defamiliarizes and reimagines social reality, and a cognitive one because it does so according to the supposed rigour of scientific rationalism (Suvin 1979: 4). Suvin proposes sf as the fictional mode of a tradition of Enlightenment utopianism in which the light of reason removes the scales from our eyes and makes the construction of a better world possible. Fiction and rationalism are combined to facilitate ‘a call to understanding and action, and…the mapping of possible alternatives’ (Suvin 2008: 13); an image of sf as a poetics of progress.
But what if this formula becomes inverted? What if Suvin’s ‘cognitive age’ – the age of scientific reason – actually culminates in something like the estrangement of cognition? This is the question addressed by R. Scott Bakker’s near-future serial killer novel Neuropath, in which a completed neuroscience threatens to expose the manipulability of the human brain and, consequently, the fundamental hollowness of our conceptions of ourselves as selves.
The story revolves around a tortured (anti-)philosophical dialogue between Thomas Bible, a cognitive psychologist, and his old friend and intellectual sparring partner Neil Cassidy, a rogue scientist in the NSA’s ‘neuromanipulation division’ (Bakker 2008: 24). As undergrads, they developed a thesis they refer to simply as the Argument, which proposes an extreme interpretation of the Eliminative Materialist position in neurophilosophy wherein the world of human experience is revealed as ‘the Grand Illusion” (106), a fabular ‘Disney World’ (28), ‘the world as understood by the masses, one peppered over with conceit after comforting conceit. A world anchored in psychological need rather than physical fact’ (28). According to the Argument, the ‘physical fact’ in question is the ineluctable mechanicity of the brain and the relative contingency and unreliability of the experiences it produces. This fact undermines our every perception, from our most basic cognitive capacities, such as the way we perceive colour, to our most dearly held abstract ideas of love, faith and free will. Their hypothesis is in fact a fictional recounting of Bakker’s own neurophilosophical position: Blind Brain Theory (BBT). BBT proposes a theory of consciousness whereby the experience of selfhood as a coherent free-willing unity is founded on a fundamental informatic deficit; the fact that ‘only a fraction of the estimated 38,000 trillion operations per second processed by the brain finds its way to consciousness’ (Bakker 2012: 1).
For Bakker, it is the information we forget rather than what we remember that defines who, or what, we are. Blind to the ineffably complex, and thoroughly mechanistic processes which produce our sense of self, we see fixity and unity instead of flux and absence. For Bakker, this blindness implies that the perennial philosophical confusion over the nature of consciousness arises because consciousness ‘literally is a kind of confusion’ (2). It is ‘the absence of information pertaining to the absence of information’ which ‘generates the illusion of sufficiency’, such that consciousness is predicated precisely on its inability to become conscious of itself as an illusion (Bakker 2013). Accordingly, the self becomes the ‘last magic show’ (Bakker 2012), in which consciousness emerges, coherent, unified and intentional, only because we cannot see the hole in the magician’s hat.
For Bakker, there is a world of difference between the theoretical postulation of this condition, already familiar to philosophy since Nietzsche, and the moment when, unveiled as scientific fact, it becomes ripe for practical, technoscientific application. Thinking it is one thing, realising it is quite another. For Bible, the Argument is ‘an old atrocity’ (Bakker 2008: 25), long since repressed by familial and professional commitments – a spectre which haunts him, but which remains sufficiently immaterial to be ignored. For Cassidy however, this thesis demands visceral demonstration. He reconvenes his dialogue with Bible by drawing him into the investigation of a series of sadistic neurosurgical crimes designed to unveil our cognitive conceits. Each victim is rewired and performed in a true theatre of cruelty; a porn star is induced to orgasm through self-mutilation until death, ‘jerked to the plucking of inner-strings’ (15); a billionaire’s capacity for facial recognition is wiped such that he no longer sees people as people, ‘only buzzing brains bumping into buzzing brains’ (77); a Congressman campaigning against ‘neurological courtroom pleas’ on the basis of Christian soul talk “willingly” cannibalises a young girl and learns that there are no moral boundaries, ‘ONLY CIRCUITS AND BEHAVIOURAL OUTPUTS’ (94); a televangelist alternately experiences the divine ecstasy of God’s presence and the complete desolation of his absence at the touch of a button, his faith reduced to neurological anomaly. The lesson: ‘your brain is all that you are’ (184).
These performances announce what Bakker calls the ‘semantic apocalypse’ (50), a kind of death of god 2.0, wherein the last vestiges of “meaning,” so far as it persists in ethical imperatives about how we should live, simply melt away, leaving us at the mercy of our biological imperatives – fear, hunger, survival – and, most ominously, vulnerable to those with the power to manipulate them. In Neuropath, cognition, in both Suvinian and neurological terms, is no longer liberatory, but produces instead a technics of enslavement.
Significantly, for Bakker—who is generally disdainful of continental philosophers, most of whom he considers guilty of clinging desperately to the myth of intentional subjectivity—it is Nietzsche who first grasps this fundamental fact. ‘Nietzsche,’ he claims, ‘was as much futurist as intellectual historian, an annalist of endangered and collapsing conceptual ecosystems. He understood that the Enlightenment would not stop exploding our ingrown vanities, that sooner or later the anthropos would fall with the anthropomorphic’ (Bakker 2016: 158). This uncanny prescience lies in Nietzsche’s insistence that, ‘our knowledge of man today is real knowledge precisely to the extent that it is knowledge of him as a machine’ (Nietzsche 1990: 136). This dawning realisation heralds the ‘advent of nihilism’ (Nietzsche 1968: 3), a process to which Nietzsche famously proposes two possible responses, passive or active, which, crucially, are themselves forms of nihilism. The passive form, of which Christianity is the apogee, attempts to negate nihilism by positing a spectral ideal, a “Disney World” projection designed to paper over the cracks. It is a fundamentally reactionary form characterised by malaise, ressentiment, the denigration of life and an appeal to the moral authority of the ideal. Where the passive form attempts to negate nihilism, the active form, seeks to affirm and accelerate it. It confronts and exalts in ‘thought in its most terrible form’, exemplified by Nietzsche’s “eternal return”; ‘existence as it is, without sense or aim, but inevitably returning, without a finale in nothingness’ (Nietzsche 2006: 386).
In Neuropath, Bible and Cassidy effectively restage the Nietzschean distinction between passive and active nihilism as a dialectical confrontation between theory and praxis, and by extension between representation and the real, which culminates in the subversion of Suvin’s utopian formula. Far from elevating the human, the project of Enlightenment rationalism is completed when the human as category is revealed as a hollow speculative myth, empty of meaning, and we are exposed as the primitive organic machines that we have always already been, merely dreaming we were something more. Indeed, not even our dreams are really ours – we are simply ‘puppets neurospastos, “drawn by strings”’ (Bakker 2008: 57).
Nietzsche, by this account, becomes a forebear of the cyberpunk movement, a thinker who is not only attuned to the fundamental imbrication of human and machine, but who clearly foresees its dystopian implications. Crucially, the word “punk” connotes this same formal antagonism between Nietzsche’s passive and active nihilisms, between the resigned, pessimistic “no future” sloganeering of the punk movement and its DIY ethos—a tension which cyberpunk inherits and thematises with its corporate dystopian settings and techno-radical outlaws. Another cyberpunk forebear, Norman Spinrad, traces this affinity with punk to a shared antipathy for the new age, agrarian utopianisms of the counterculture; a rebellion against both ‘the anti-artificial anti-technological esthetic…against what was seen as the reactionary wimpish denial of the esthetic possibilities of the technosphere’ and, at the same time, against the ‘coldly rational realm of science, technology, and the technocratic servants of Amerika’ (Spinrad 1990: 114). What maintains throughout, from counterculture to cyberpunk, is the traditional American valorisation of individual creativity, an iterated mythology of the Promethean self against the world, transforming the world and transforming itself with it; what Spinrad calls “neuromanticism.”
This is the active component, the positive content that morphs into a cautious optimism in its post-cyberpunk offspring. Nevertheless, this ostensible activism is undermined by a latent passivity. After all, Gibson’s Case is not so much a heroic outsider individual as he is a marionette; addicted to narcotics, addicted to cyberspace, and, ultimately, controlled by the machinations of the Wintermute AI. The neuromantic, replete with dreams of transcending ‘the prison of his own flesh’ (Gibson 1995: 12), is always already neurospastos. Neuropath elaborates on this nihilist undercurrent and dissolves the mythology of the self entirely. The antagonist Cassidy is at once scientist, technocrat, and outlaw; a horrific parody of that other Neal Cassady, the heroic emblem of countercultural self-expression ordained by Kerouac. Having ‘disconnected any performance inhibiting circuits’ in his own brain, Cassidy realises ‘that I will utterly nothing’ (Bakker 2008: 277). He is both actively passive and passively active. In the absence of free will, the distinction simply collapses. He becomes a kind of fleshy automaton seeking only to replicate, to spread the virus of flat affect selflessness. Spinrad’s neuromanticism becomes a virulent neuropathology.
Peter Watts, inspired by a comparative review of Neuropath and his own novel Blindsight, coined the term “neuropunk” to characterise their work as ‘a kind of nihilistic counterpoint to the post-cyberpunk Singularity-huggers’ (Watts 2008). Whilst Watts’s novel takes a considerably more cosmic perspective, what both share is a profound pessimism about the unicity of consciousness, such that neuropunk, on these terms, can broadly be defined as cyberpunk divested of all residues of the human – i.e. the phenomenal self – as a privileged category. Far from eluding, constructing, or hacking a given machinery or system, the human here is simply recognised as one more machine, and a largely incidental, malfunctioning machine at that. It is important to assert that what Watts and Bakker are getting at is not one more case of man-machine analogy, but rather the very collapse of the analogy itself. Should a sufficiently applicable neuroscientific model of the brain be realised, then consciousness ceases to be merely metaphorically machinic – it becomes fundamentally programmable. In Bakker’s words, ‘Once the human brain falls into our manipulative purview, anything becomes possible’ (Bakker 2011).
This raises the spectre of yet older connotations of the word “punk”. Its earliest known 17th Century usage referred to “prostitute,” a connotation of sexual use value maintained in its most common pre-punk rock American usage as a term for the submissive partner in a homosexual prison relationship. The threat Neuropath confronts us with, implied throughout in its frequent allusions to neuromarketing and state-corporate neuromanipulation and surveillance techniques, recovers this sense of the punk as a body to be used. It forebodingly suggests that, should we breach the semantic apocalypse, our brains will be very much open for business. Arguably, this is the trauma that accounts for Cassidy’s ostensibly opaque motivations. In his time with the NSA he was tasked with researching and implementing experimental interrogation techniques using the aptly titled neuro-torture device, the “Marionette.” It is his experience with this machine, and the consequent revelation of the sheer programmability of the brain, and, by extension, the ad hoc illusoriness of consciousness, that leads him to reprogram his own brain and reconvene the Argument with Bible. Traumatised by the NSA’s use of his own body, it seems that, in this heuristic torture of his old friend, he is at once trapped in a compulsion to repeat and, even denuded of self, desperate to communicate the trauma.
It is here, I would suggest, that we can begin to doubt whether Cassidy’s malign applications are the necessary consequence of any coming semantic apocalypse – an apocalypse, of course, is always as much a beginning as an end. For one thing, the term neuropunk is not so new as Watts suggests. Mark Fisher also deployed it on his own blog k-punk as far back as 2004, with considerably more radical, optimistic intent. For Fisher, ‘As yet another of Kapital’s slave-programs, the purpose of neuroeconomics is to induce the kinds of idiot-repetition-compulsion’ (Fisher 2004) that underpin what he famously called “Capitalist Realism” – the post-Fukuyama assertion that there is no alternative to capitalism (Fisher 2009). In his own critique of Neuropath, Fisher makes a sharp distinction between the phenomenal self and cognition. He accepts Bakker’s eliminativism of the former but asserts that there remains a rational ‘depersonalized subject’ which ultimately does the eliminating (Fisher 2012: 10). Contra neuromantic – and neoliberal – egoism, he proposes a ‘General Intellect’ (Fisher 2012: 11); cognition as a collective process of revision and reprogramming with the potential to perform ‘an intensive rewiring of humanity’s neural circuits’ (Fisher 2004), taking us, as Case hoped, beyond the prison of the flesh both materially and phenomenally.
This, for Fisher, is what constitutes neuropunk. What prevents the full realisation of this potential is capitalism. Whilst it freely exploits neuroscientific research in the pursuit of profit and control, capital is nevertheless ‘committed to disseminating the ideological image of the conscious subject capable of exercising choice’ (Fisher 2012: 10). It feeds off the atomised self and so must keep the semantic apocalypse at bay lest Disney World crumble. This is Cassidy’s own Wintermute, pulling his strings and revealing him as finally more passive than practical. As such, if there is ever to be an active form of neuropunk, it will have to imagine a more radical Cassidy. Either that, or, if Bakker’s right, we share the fate of Bible’s son, irreversibly rewired to experience a state of perpetual terror, interminably screaming into the 21st Century.
Bio: Ashley Gordon is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Glasgow who is researching a thesis inspired by Reza Negarestani’s theory-fiction novel Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials which is tentatively titled Artificial Abysses: Nihilism, Theory-Fiction and the Fictionality of Theory.
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