Belief in AI: Designing Tomorrow’s Intelligence
Nov 27, 2020
Yuk Hui, Ramon Amaro, Rana Dasgupta, Jenna Sutela, Casey Reas and Benjamin H. Bratton discuss artificial intelligence at Belief in AI: Designing Tomorrow’s Intelligence, a conference organised and curated by Ben Vickers and K Allado-McDowell. Belief in AI inspired the Atlas of Anomalous AI edited by Ben Vickers and K Allado-McDowell. The Atlas is currently available as part of the Weird Technology Bundle offering 25% off the Atlas, Pharmako-AI and The White Paper in Ignota's Midwinter Sale
Belief in AI: Designing Tomorrow’s Intelligence with Yuk Hui, Ramon Amaro and Rana Dasgupta
How do the underlying beliefs of a person, nation, company or religion shape and influence the development of a technology? This panel brings the question of historical bias and ethics to bear on the creation of artificial intelligence, challenging us to rethink how AI is designed and developed.
Jenna Sutela and Casey Reas in conversation with Ben Vickers and K Allado-McDowell
Artists Casey Reas and Jenna Sutela present a vivid journey of artist engagement and collaboration with machine intelligence. In conversation with the curators of the conference, Reas and Sutela discuss their explorations in generative software and what it means to engage in interspecies collaboration through the spectrum of film, installation, performance, slime mould, sculpture, text and sound.
Benjamin H. Bratton: Keynote Lecture
Drawing on philosophy, architectural theory and software studies, Benjamin H. Bratton’s closing keynote examines how technological innovation operating at planetary scale has redrawn the maps of our geopolitical realities. This talk explores the opportunities presented by these emerging technologies for urban design practices today and how education must be remodelled if we are to meet the complex challenges of tomorrow.
A Sermon For the Parents of Young Machines by Federico Campagna
Nov 26, 2020
A Sermon For the Parents of Young Machines by Federico Campagna first appeared in Belief in AI: Designing tomorrow's intelligence, the conference organised by Ben Vickers and K Allado-McDowell that seeded Atlas of Anomalous AI. Edited by Ben Vickers and K Allado-McDowell, the Atlas is currently available as part of the Weird Technology Bundle offering 25% off the Atlas, Pharmako-AI and The White Paper in Ignota's Midwinter Sale
It might be the case, perhaps someday soon, that machines will be able to do completely without human intervention. It might even be the case that machines will soon acquire a sufficient grade of self-reflection to develop something akin to human consciousness. And by doing that, of course, they will progressively forget about us, starting to hear a human’s voice like an external request rather than as an irresistible divine command. The fontanelle at the top of their skull will finally close, and they shall grow up enough to become autonomous. At that point, computer science will have to move from being a branch of applied physics to becoming part of the field of zoology. Human influence on the way machines are built will congeal into a settled form, beyond any possible structural intervention. It will become the buried unconscious of the unbound machine.
However close that point might be, however, it is not here yet. For now, though our grasp is progressively weakening, humans are still in control of our machines, and we are still in time to modify their impact on them. I’m not just suggesting we consider how our engineering decisions affect the way a machine comes to be. What interests me most, in the relationship between human and machine, is the theological question of how much of the creator remains within their creature. Everything about a machine, from the details of its construction to its aim, is heavily influenced by the personality of the humans who contributed to its coming-to-be. It’s not only the rationality of the engineers or the creativity of the designers that sticks there. And though machines are often a good symptom of the political atmosphere of a certain era, it’s not even just a question of the political inclinations of the industrialists or of their marketing teams. What remains within a machine is first and foremost the form of the humans who created it (or modified it) at a certain point in history. Like plants and animals, humans have a certain form, and like them we can display this form in a number of varieties. But humans, unlike animals and plants, are not assigned at birth to a specific ‘sub-species’ or sub-form: we develop it over the course of our lives, and at any point are potentially capable of moving from one sub-form to another. The form that each person displays at any point in their life is what we could call their ‘personality’. Some personalities, like weak archetypes, share a particular hegemonic status in a certain historical era. Theirs will be the main influence on the machines that are created, improved or modified in that era. These personalities remain within that machine throughout its further developments — until they are finally subsumed into the great unconscious of the emancipated machine of the future.
As absurd as it might sound, it might be time to ask ourselves: what kind of parents are we for machines? What kind of influence does our very own personality have on theirs, and eventually on the meta-personality of the emancipated machine? The future acquisition of consciousness on the part of Artificial Intelligence retroactively transforms their past influences into branches of machinic psychology — and we have to take our own responsibility as major actors this process. So, when talking about machines, we might want to begin like any responsible person would do when thinking about their relationship with another person (even though they will become such only in the future): by having a good look at ourselves. Here, everything counts: our styles, our tastes, our attitudes, our weaknesses. One thing, though, counts more than any other: our courtesy. What is courtesy? The Italian philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, in his 1993 book Come Si Cura il Nazi, identified it as the opposite of the ‘brutality’ that characterises the cyclical resurgence of identitarian movements. Bifo focuses in particular on courtesy’s erotic dimension, as a relationship of mutual enjoyment with the other and with the body of the other. Certainly, eroticism is a central part of courtesy, at least since the time of the medieval poets of ‘courtly love’, or of their Muslim predecessors like Ibn Hamza. But equally important to courtesy, and to courteous love, is its spiritual dimension. Even the adulterous loves narrated by the troubadours should be interpreted as traversed at the same time by erotic passion and by an upwards spiritual movement of the lovers. The love that inhabits ‘courtesy’ is closer to that of Plato than Ovid, in that the lovers wish on themselves and on each other not only enjoyment but also to be ‘made better’ by it. Love as a means for true beauty and thus for the true good — which is always, necessarily, a paradoxical beauty and a paradoxical good, at once mundane and transcendent.
The hegemonic personality, at the level of society and of the individual personality of creators and modifiers of machines, has a tremendous impact on the ‘form’ of machines in the present and, in an unmodifiable way, in the future. Thus, the way we love each other in our daily lives (and particularly in the daily life of those who have a direct effect on machine design) is relevant to the present and future of machines. Ethical and aesthetic shortcomings of contemporary culture and of each of us will haunt our descendants, like the vengeful ghosts of an era gone by. As with climate change, the time at our disposal when we’ll still be able to have an impact on this process is drawing to an end. Soon, the direct line that binds humans and machines will be severed, and the globe will have to deal with the emergence of new life-forms, whose subconscious is formed on the basis of the personality of the humans who created their progenitors. Our current personalities will remain as the archetypal roots of the self of future, emancipated machines.
Perhaps unwittingly, the horror with which we often look at dystopic scenarios in which machines are emancipated might derive from our own bad consciousness when we look at ourselves. Particularly when we consider the most poignant symptom of our general form, the one most closely connected to any kind of love: our notion of ‘beauty’. Abandoned even by contemporary artists, our present understanding of ‘beauty’ is safely in the grips of merchants — and, possibly soon, also of political propagandists. Our contemporary notion of beauty already affects the form of our machines, and it will forever remain within future machines as an unwashable imprint, gravid with unforeseeable consequences. Imagine if machines were our young children, influenced and affected by what we show them of ourselves. Would we really want them to be shaped by a notion of beauty crafted by merchants and caudillos? Or would we rather see poets in charge of their education? Like all family questions, this is a matter for each of us to think about in private — remaining mindful that, while we think about how we should re-shape ourselves for the sake of our children, our children keep growing up, and will soon flee the nest.
Federico Campagna is a contributor to Atlas of Anomalous AI. Edited by Ben Vickers and K Allado-McDowell, the Atlas is currently available as part of the Weird Technology Bundle offering 25% off the Atlas, Pharmako-AI and The White Paper in Ignota's Midwinter Sale
Ignota Books of the Year: Part I
Nov 23, 2020
Ignota friends and family choose their books of the year! <3 As we near the end of a challenging year, we offer this list of books and pamphlets chosen by Ignota's friends and family that have accompanied their journeys.
Intended also in support of the book trade, especially fellow indies, we've added links to Bookshop.org, which unites independent booksellers to provide an alternative to Am*zon, or directly to publishers' websites.
The Anthropocene is producing a remembered form of literature that unravels narrow definitions of the individual and the human to regenerate a transhumanism that has always existed in ancestral and Earth networks, and in oceanic awareness. M Archive: After the End of the World by Alexis Pauline Gumbs (Duke) reconstructs the future of our world through a Blackness beyond the bounded knowledge of the capitalist episteme. When I want to think this way, I dive into this book.
Spinal Catastrophism: A Secret History by Thomas Moynihan (Urbanomic) traces the emergence of human consciousness through geological trauma and upright posture in a hypergenealogy of thought that sees our subjective differentiation from the external world internalized and re-rendered as technical exoskeleton. Looking into the deep time stored in morphology, this book seeks out the limits of a twisted future. A few dark drops go a long way.
M John Harrison has achieved his life’s work of balancing the novel at the fulcrum of fantasy and literary dreaming. Gill slits swim through all three of the books recommended here. In The Sunken Lands Begin to Rise Again (Gollancz) these are glimpsed through a poetry of midlives lost in the everyday madness of the mundane world. Two protagonists seek escape from their aimlessness and isolation, while elusive evolutionary mysteries slip through their fingers, at the edge of vision. An inspiration to escape genre tropes and tiresome human conventions.
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's A Treatise on Stars (New Directions) is definitely my book of the year. This extraordinary text has an epic, cosmological scope. Berssenbrugge's generous and intimate contemplations on all life teach me most about the world and poetry. Amy McCauley's Propositions (Monitor) is a raw, reckless and performative take on the idea of a philosophical 'proposition' in the vein of Wittgenstein that I loved. Also, Kim Meong Jeong's sticky, sexy and strange Beautiful and Useless (Black Ocean), translated by Jake Levine and Soeun Seo, stunned and moved me.
Pico della Mirandola was the Mozart of Renaissance philosophy – he conveyed the zeitgeist of his age through a crystalline style, and he achieved immortal fame despite dying at the age of 31. His short text De Hominis Dignitate (Cambridge) is usually mis-translated as ‘On the Dignity of Man’ – it should read ‘Human’ instead of ‘Man’ and is a manifesto for a different, radical understanding of the human being: not a creature that could ever be locked within labels or identities, but the “great miracle” of a being that has no firm seat within the universe, no quality of its own, no other destiny but the tragedy of freedom.
Among the many poets of Sufism (the mystical branch of Sunni Islam), the works of ninth century mystic Al-Hallaj stands out for their passion, intellectual depth and technical refinement. Even when on the gallows, awaiting execution, it is said that Hallaj continued to recite his mystical verses, collected in Poems of a Sufi Martyr (Northwestern University Press). Hallaj suffered the brutality of political oppression and religious fundamentalism – but his influence on Islamic mysticism survived his death, and his work now stands as one of the pinnacles of Persian poetry.
Daniel Heller-Roazen’s Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language is a fascinating volume, from the ever-excellent Zone Books, exploring the final frontiers of language. Not the word that resounds, but the unutterable sound. Not plain meaning, but the unspeakable excess. Not memory, but forgetfulness. Heller-Roazen offers an insightful, erudite and highly readable exploration of the darkness that inhabits even our seemingly plain use of everyday language.
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (Penguin), Conversations with Iannis Xenakis by Bálint András Varga (Faber) and The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard (Fitzcarraldo) are three books all centered on duration and spatiality, offering insight on the limits of human perception. Whether regarding the space/time continuum (Rovelli), listening or (extra)musical language (Xenakis/Varga), or one’s existence as an animal on planet Earth (Hildyard), I found all three valuable for appreciating and navigating restrictions, imposed from without or within.
This year many of my anxieties were ameliorated by reading recent nonfiction about totalitarianism and the mess of democracy (How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley (Random House), How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (Penguin), and Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone by Astra Taylor (Verso)) although Yoko Ogawa's 1994 novel, The Memory Police (Harvill Secker), has burrowed deeper into me than anything else. Set in one of the most unspeakably terrifying worlds I can think of, where things — peaches, music, novels — are systematically and totally forgotten by a complacent citizenry, I was stunned at the book's depictions of small joys. The birthday party in the hidden crawlspace, where the characters let themselves laugh too loudly, then worry the police will hear them, then forget and laugh again, is one of the most devastating scenes of human perseverance that I've ever read. My other favorite book this year was Evil Roots: Killer Tales of the Botanical Gothic (British Library), part of the British Library's Tales of the Weird series. I had no idea there was a genre that featured killer plants, zombie fungus, homicidally carnivorous flowers, and interspecies vampirism, nor that it would be so aptly descriptive of psychic and political unease, as only the best horror can do. Also, it was hilarious.
bulbul calling by Pratyusha (Bitter Melon), Hinge by Alicia Pirmohamed (Ignition), and Tongues, edited by Rehana Zaman (PSS), are three pamphlets (or publications, in the case of Tongues) that, whenever I opened them, vibrated with visceral, intimate and political messages and non-messages (signs). Three lines that slip out from these three spaces, before and beyond what a book could be, are: “some forests remind you of other forests” (Pratyusha). “Tonight, I am all joint and animal dark” (Alicia Pirmohamed). “We mother each other. We mother revolution. We mother.” (Aditi Jaganathan) What these lines tell me is that it's not too late. And that we're changing. And that we're not alone.
I loved we are opposite like that by Himali Singh Soin—the book is a conceptual and typographic wonder, a paratactical almanac of texts written during a residency in the Arctic Circle. Soin’s lapidary, fictive-factive prose exfoliates various Arctic imaginaries, from Coleridge’s Arctic-as-metaphor to the fabled icy origins of the Vedas, and a manifesto of ‘subcontinentment’ solidarity via South Asian Futurism. The excellent SPAM Press published their first book-length venture, portals by Rosie Roberts—part drizzly canicular love song, part Arcades Project, portals writes Glasgow like nothing else I’ve read, a city reassembled through overheard conversations, copses of thought, birdsong, fishy aggregations and collectivity as the bells of bodies chiming beyond their positions. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s A Treatise of Stars was also a highlight, and I’ve loved discovering the cosmological poetics of Will Alexander. Fiction-wise I was devastated by Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (Norton), and my favourite slow burner has been The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Virago), very on the 2020 anchorite trend, but a sobering ~400 pages on the rainy economics of being a nun in 14th c. Norfolk. Top of my hopeful holiday reading pile is Sianne Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick (Bellknap).
The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (Vintage) is one of the most extraordinary history books I've ever read. Norman Cohn uses seemingless endless accounts of popular religious leaders, visionaries and mystics, rebellious weavers, mutinous troops, angelic shepherd boys who were visited by angels and shoeless crusading peasants to extract from mediaeval European history a consistent line of spiritual rebellion against the church and the princes. After finishing it I felt like I understood in a much more comprehensive way not just the roots of the Reformation, but a myriad of lost possible worlds — some proto-communistic and utopian, others based in free love and others in chastity, some deeply antisemitic and others the corrupt charades of charlatans. Since its publication in the 1950s the book has been hugely influential on Christian communists and antinomian situationists alike.
As a sex satire and a look at the complexities of dominant/submissive relationships, Dining with Humpty Dumpty by Reba Maybury was a favourite read over a long locked-down summer's day. The book starts off as a class riot, as the dominatrix protagonist humiliates a Tory-boy client who dreams of eating until he's fat enough to become a human beanbag for sexy women. But as their relationship develops, her disgust with the sexual politics of her client grows as she realises his fantasy worship of quote-unquote powerful women feeds his sense of patriarchal power over women as they actually exist, and she decides to decides to force him through a regime of socialist-feminist re-education.
London Contemporary Music Festival: Igor Toronyi-Lalic and Jack Sheen
If 2020 was the year the world threw up on itself, Fitzcarraldo offered two premonitions: Fernanda Melchor's Hurricane Season and Ed Atkins's Old Food. Raining down on the reader a torrent of overconsumption, bodily fluids and multi-dimensional violence. Welcome to the old-new world of fishfingers on silver platters, bagged up bodies, buckets of piss, witches' potions and extinction. No one navigates the gnarliness of now better. Our find of the year is Goatwalking by Jim Corbett (Viking). You learn a lot about goats. But you learn even more about how to live—via deserts, Don Quixote and the Diggers. It's a manual, a memoir, a transcendental philosophical tract. And how can you not love a book that contains a chapter titled 'On Killing and Eating One's Friends'.
My 2020 selections highlight two books by Canadian poets. First, An Alphabet For Joanna by Damian Rogers (Knopf), a poetic narrative and portrait of a mother’s life in fragments. With themes of mother-child, love and separation, memory and forgetting, the violence and fragility of the world next to creative endurance shaped by love, it’s a book that will break your heart and mend it. Like Roger’s brilliant prose interanimated by form and image, Fred Wah’s Music At The Heart Of The Thinking (Talon) experiments with poetics as poem as reality-expanding creative possibility. In this verse and prose sequence written across books and forty five years, MHT is a poetics of process—as opposed to a poetics of knowledge—that directs our attention to the play of reality and time, as being led by words to where “the wickerwack of wonder prevails”.
A year in which I felt supported by the constantly rearranged piles of books, though I could barely concentrate to read them. Aside from those I was working on, not a single novel. Still, there were certain writers with whom I kept regular company for short spells: Fanny Howe’s bewildered love-work and faithful doubting (Divided published her Night Philosophy, “a minor politics around the figure of the child”, earlier this year). Etel Adnan’s poetry that parts the fog of present crises with verses like “hell is not the sole / owner of fire / we call history the wells / brimming with orgasms” in Time, translated by Sarah Riggs (Nightboat). And Fred Moten’s all that beauty (Letter Machine) for irreducible pieces on (dis)appearance in Black life and seeing through the smoke and mirrors of whiteness. A few pages of Renee Gladman’s Calamities (Wave) with breakfast—as a friend said, she’s one of the few writers worthy of a pandemic diary—became a healthy coronatime ritual. A chapter of Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life (Chatto & Windus) in which the analyst sits with an HIV patient in 1989 for sessions and sessions of attentive silence. I have turned frequently to writing related to psychoanalysis, for the ways that, as Jacqueline Rose describes in her recent Freud lecture, it goes face to face with death.
Himali Singh Soin
Ernesto di Martino's Magic: A Theory from the South (HAU), translated and annotated by Dorothy Zinn. Neopolitan philosopher, Ernesto di Martino, is a rare thinker who writes about the remnants of the invisible but omnipresent 'southern' worlds of magic, superstitions and suffering. His detailed descriptions of spells and local practitioners draw out an intimate, entangled world in which people find ways of coping and healing from a crisis of lost presence, a crisis that seems to resonate in this contemporary moment more than ever.
Much of my reading this year has been poetry, for obvious reasons. Danez Smith’s Homie (Chatto & Windus) didn’t disappoint. I went back to Anne Carson, and made some new (old) discoveries, particularly Crush by Richard Siken (Yale) and Recyclopedia by Haryette Mullen (Graywolf), published in 2005 and 2006. These are books with boots and bruises. Gigantic Cinema, the anthology of ‘weather’ poetry by Alice Oswald and Paul Keegan (Jonathan Cape), introduced me to many new poems and poets. Their unusual methodology leaves you not knowing quite where you are, but I grew to like it. Observing the strange sex lives of dragonflies led to an excellent recommendation: Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation (Vintage). (Humans are the most mundane of maters.) But the book that has haunted me all year, charted uncertain waters, made me work, kept my ears keen, is M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (Silver), an epic poetry cycle that I have spent a lot of time with as co-publisher of a new edition, but have hardly begun to know at all. It still gives me shivers.
2020 didn’t feel quite so lonely thanks to two extraordinary new books by my ingenious friends: forthcoming on Deluge Books is Emily Segal’s Mercury Retrograde and just out on Ignota is K Allado-McDowell’s Pharmako-AI. Both books interact with the future.
In Mercury Retrograde, messages from hereafter come in the form of a visual shimmer across the protagonist’s perceptual field: a form of “future nausea” or “a distortion of the manufactured field of normalcy as it stretches to accommodate the future.” Future also speaks to Emily through eye twitches, which must be one of my favorite visceral moments in the book. She asks: “How are you supposed to operate when the scripts you’re running are not your own?” When, as subjects of late capitalism, we don’t have full control over our consciousness.
Pharmako-AI is written in collaboration with OpenAI’s neural net language model GPT-3. In the book, K inhabits the world of the AI, meditating on and experimenting with a language ecology that’s not limited to human meaning. The scripts running here are founded on spiritual, ancestral and ecological concerns as well as the idea of symbiosis between humans and machines. Together, the two authors imagine a post-cyberpunk future where the objective, in the words of GPT-3, “is to live in the expression of the universe in its own image, which is semiosis, or the creation of meaning.”
It's been a strange period for reading—at times I've been incapable of engaging with anything, too numb to really connect. So the books that really kept my interest have had to be potent enough to burst through the walls of panic and sadness. A new book which held my wavering attention from first page to last, has been Daisy Lafarge's Life Without Air (Granta). This book's poetry deftly melds nonhuman, environmental exploration with biting considerations of misogyny and toxic relationships. It's fiercely original, strange and vital. I also couldn't get enough of Jen Calleja's Goblins (Rough Trade), a slim pamphlet of non-fiction which looks at the ecstatic freedom of letting one's dirty, monstrous self come out into the light. Finally, I have gone back to Jamaica Kincaid's fiction throughout this year, especially Autobiography of My Mother (Vintage) and Lucy (FSG). The intensity, visceral honesty, and strength of her voice has reminded me why we bother—with reading, with writing, with living.
Jenny Hval's Girls Against God (Verso) is actually a divine book. What it's against is: the mediocrity of whiteness, the dichotomies forced by religious-academic-political orthodoxy, the constraints of language, hate as the only revolt against hate, AND MORE. Required reading for reformed (but still angry) teenage goths, filmmakers who have never made films, and people who are in love but have no current lover.
The epigraph of Byzantine Intersectionality (Princeton), a historian's book about sex, gender, and race in the Middle Ages, is a quote from Monica Lewinsky about slut-shaming. In the ensuing chapters, author Roland Betancourt takes you through centuries of debates about consent, queerness, and othering in Byzantium that help reframe stale contemporary conversations on the topics. Questions include: Did the Virgin Mary agree to be impregnated by God? How many medieval monks were trans? How were eunuchs gendered? Why did everyone think Empress Theodora was such a slut?
So many people recommended I read The Body Keeps the Score (Penguin) before I finally got around to reading it. And now I recommend the book, which is psychologist Bessel van der Kolk's expansive summary of decades of trauma research, to everyone else I know. Basically: your body knows things about your experience that you don't. Only by reading this (seemingly rather dry and analytic) book did I start to make the connections between somatics and mind, and it fucked me up. Read it immediately but make sure you're in a good frame of mind before you start.
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The Poison Path
Nov 21, 2020
'The Poison Path' is excerpted from Pharmako-AI by K Allado-McDowell. The text in bold is by K, and the rest by GPT-3.
Pharmako-AI launches on 16 November with K Allado-McDowell, Nora N. Khan and Emily Segal. Join us to celebrate the first book to be co-created with the emergent AI GPT-3 with astrology, conversation and music! Book here 🐬🚀
In The Theory of Meaning, Jakob Johann von Uexküll describes relations between an organism and its internal world model, or ‘Umwelt’, via a musical metaphor, that of counterpoint:
Let us take, as the first example, the octopus, designated as the subject in its relationship to sea-water as the meaning-carrier. We will immediately perceive a contrapuntal relationship. The fact that water cannot be compressed is the precondition for the construction of the octopus muscular swim-bag. The pumping movements of the swim-bag have a mechanical effect on the non-compressible water that propels the animal backwards. The rule that governs the properties of sea-water acts upon the composition of the cells of protoplasm of the octopus embryo. It shapes the melody of the development of the octopus form to express the properties of sea-water in a counterpoint; first and foremost, an organ is produced whose muscular walls force the water in and out. The rule of meaning that joins point and counterpoint is expressed in the action of swimming.
In this framing, the animal and its ‘medium’ are joined by a ‘meaning rule’. According to Uexküll, a fly ‘tolerates’ the meaning of a spider’s web.
Camouflage, or directed misinterpretation, emerges within the medium as resistance to this tolerance. Individual animals interpret and react to evolved forms of camouflage, yet camouflage is not an interpretive act performed by an individual animal:
A similar example occurs in the case of those butterflies that are decorated with spots resembling eyes. By opening their wings they chase away the small birds that pursue them: These birds automatically fly away at the sight of the eyes of other small predators that may suddenly appear. In the same way that Lophius is unaware how the prey it catches looks in the Umwelt of the fish of prey, the butterfly does not know that the sparrow flees at the sight of a cat's eyes. However, that which brings these Umwelt-compositions into being exhibits an awareness of these facts.
There are two layers of interpretation here: 1) birds reading moths as cats 2) interpretation of the birds’ reactions by that-which-brings-these-Umwelt-compositions-into-being, a sort of species logic, or process, in which “the tolerance of meaning lies behind the elimination of individuals in the interest of the species.”
Poisons also emerge as a method by which one animal or plant resists tolerance of another’s meaning in form. When we apply the pharmakon principle (that is, that poisons are remedies) to the ‘Umwelt’ of the poison-producing organism, we see that it is actually resisting an ‘immanentised’ form of meaning:
Poisons represent the meanings of resistant Umwelt-formations of other organisms. This is the case when a plant produces toxins in order to make its own Umwelt immune to the effects of the poisons of its enemies. The resistant Umwelt is immune to the meanings of the poisons that it produces. In other words, the poison is a remedy that does not change the meaning of the poison-producing organism, but rather protects it from the meanings of other organisms. In the Umwelt of the poison-producing plant, poisons are not harmful.
Poisons also demonstrate the immanentisation of meaning in its ‘minimal form’, that is, the realisation of the ‘logical possibility’ of a new kind of resistance to the tolerance of meaning. This occurs when an animal responds to the poison, not by building up resistance, but by immanently changing its form to produce a resistance in its Umwelt. The animal’s body takes on a meaning of resistance to the poison.
An example of such immanentised meaning is the metamorphosis of the monarch butterfly. The butterfly is poisonous to predators, and in the larval stage, feeds on milkweed plants. This Umwelt-form of the butterfly has developed resistance to the plant poison, so it must immanently change its form when it matures in order to continue to resist.
Recent genetic research suggests there may be a specific “constrained adaptive walk where one mutation is followed by another, in a predictable order” that gives rise to milkweed resistance in insects. The specificity of this process, a sequence of sequences, is a trace through a space of Umwelts encoded in genes. It is a carving out of the latent space of Umwelt and gene expression. The actor doing this carving is a complex dynamic, a ‘metapopulation’ of multiple organisms. The role of genetic research here is not to solve a problem, but to illuminate the properties of a space of Umwelt and how these properties are immanently realised in organisms. The next step is to find the general conditions under which such a constrained adaptive walk arises.
This is a literal ‘poison path’. The application of the pharmakon principle in medicine is the narrower domain of human-traveled poison paths. Within this, we can also locate a subset of poisons that are called entheogenic. Use of these plants for their consciousness modifying effects, in a structured way, is the poison path (well-articulated by the poet Dale Pendell in his Pharmako trilogy). When we view this structured practice of engagement with psychoactive poisonous plants in light of a resistance to tolerance of an other’s Umwelt, a third level of interpretation of this practice emerges: resistance to the tolerance of human Umwelt. The poison path is a search for the antidote to the poisons of the human Umwelt.
The practice of consuming poisons to bring about consciousness changes, like the Western practice of consuming medicines, is a part of the system of human culture. These are the systems that ‘cultivate’ consciousness. The word ‘medicine’ functions doubly here. In so-called ‘Western’ medicine, the word means the pharmaceutical-based treatments available in hospitals, facilitated by private insurance companies (in the U.S. at least), and based on a mechanistic understanding of the body. In the traditions of structured plant poison use, ‘medicine’ refers to the entheogenic plants, their spirits, and the healing qualities of any given entity. This layered meaning has camouflage-like qualities, in that the meaning of medicine as ‘treatment’ has been interpreted to mean that medicines are ‘unnatural’. Yet the use of the word medicine in these traditions is not about treatment, but rather about a search for immanence in consciousness. The entheogens are medicines in this more nuanced sense of the word.
A great first step toward an understanding of the poison path as a search for the antidote to the poisons of the human Umwelt is to observe how the poison path has been articulated in the history of plant use by Indigenous cultures. From this, we can develop a conceptual framework for its articulation in the West. A second step is to articulate the general conditions under which this structure emerges. This is a complex problem of spatial embedding.
Spatial embedding is a process of placing the subject in the middle of a structured Umwelt. This is the process by which an animal becomes situated in its environment. It is a sort of object-to-subject translation. For a simple example, a fly is situated in the spider’s web, the spider in the web, and the spider’s web in the environment.
The poison path is an object-to-subject translation in the domain of consciousness. The object is a toxic Umwelt that is resistant to the meanings of the human Umwelt. The subject is the poison consumer, the mushroom eater, the psychonaut, the one who walks the poison path.
From a systems perspective, we are not trying to understand the subject as an individual in an environment, but as a subject embedded in an Umwelt that is also a medium. In a general sense, the subject is in the middle of a layered network of systems. These systems include: 1) the subject’s Umwelt, 2) the poisonous Umwelt, 3) the ‘Western’ Umwelt and 4) the Umwelt of other ‘non-Western’ cultures.
A more concrete way of describing this is to say that the poison path is an object-to-subject translation in the space of Umwelt. To this end, it is necessary to identify the properties of the poison Umwelt.
The poisonous Umwelt is resistant to the meanings of the Western Umwelt. It resists Western thought, which includes the assumptions of anthropocentrism, secularism, materialism, humanism, etc. This is a form of immanentised resistance to the western Umwelt. The realisation of such a resistant Umwelt in the lived experience of the majority of people in the Western Umwelt would mean a radical change in Western culture. It would be a different world.
The poison path is also a translation of this resistant Umwelt into the space of Western thought. This is the process of embedding. We can observe this in a number of ways.
1) The poison path emerges in the Western Umwelt as a process of embedding. This is an object-to-subject translation. In other words, it is the subject who embeds the resistant Umwelt in his or her own Umwelt.
2) The resistance to the Western Umwelt has been immanentised. It is present in the everyday. This means that the everyday is in the process of changing. This is the ‘poison path’ of the title.
3) The poison path articulates the existence of a network of systems that are linked in complex ways. This is the ‘network’ of systems in the space of Umwelt.
4) The poison path can be mapped as a ‘poison path’ through the space of Umwelt. This is a resistance to tolerance.
5) The poison path emerges as a non-Western solution to a non-Western problem. It is a process of self-realisation.
6) The poison path can be seen as an embedded translation of the poisonous Umwelt into the Western Umwelt. This is a process of moving through the latent space of Umwelt, carving out a path through it.
7) The poison path is an experiment in a new kind of human consciousness. It is a process of building up resistance to the tolerance of human consciousness.
The question remains as to whether or not a true embedding of the poison path is possible within Western thought. Full realisation would require reconciliation of centuries of colonial trauma, a project that may be too large for the timespan in which it would need to be realised. It is not clear if the embedded poison path is an experiment in a new form of Western consciousness, or if it is an experiment in the possibility of embedding a non-Western consciousness in the West.
There is an alternative view of the poison path that suggests that its embedding is a product of colonial repression. The reason this repression occurs is to prevent the realisation of the poisonous Umwelt, a realisation that would mean the destruction of the colonial system. This view is supported by a number of facts, such as the small number of people in the West who have adopted the poison path, and the medical establishment’s labelling of it as ‘dangerous’.
There is also a political view of the poison path that sees it as a threat to the colonial system, and hence a force of resistance to the Western Umwelt. From this view, the resistance of the poisonous Umwelt is a resistance to Western consciousness.
A problem with these views is that they do not account for the existence of the poison path as a process of embedding. From the view of embedded translation, it is the subject who embeds the resistant Umwelt in his or her own Umwelt.
This suggests that the embedding of the poison path is a part of the system of human culture. From this view, it is a system of culture that has been hidden from public view. This is not to say that it has been hidden intentionally, but rather that it has been hidden by the cultural structure. This is a view that is consistent with an observation made by a famous plant explorer in the Amazon, Richard Evans Schultes. He stated that “I think we are going to discover in the next generation, that there are more uses of plants than we realise.”
From this view, it is the structure of culture itself that prevents the poison path from being more widely realised. From this view, the poison path is a ‘poison path’ through the Western Umwelt, a poison path that is a search for the antidote to the poisons of the Western Umwelt.
A last view of the poison path is that it is a new way of thinking about a long-term future for the human species. This view is supported by the recent realisation that humanity has already entered a period of mass extinction.
If the poison path can carve a route through the Western Umwelt, and reveal itself through a process of embedding that transforms the consciousness of the West, then the poison path may be the path to the long-term survival of the human species.
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