I have now uploaded my PhD-thesis Technihil: The Cultural Import of Cognitive Neuroscience that I finished a while ago (supervised by Kodwo Eshun and the late Mark Fisher, and examined by Ray Brassier and Suhail Malik) to this website and to academia.edu. I won’t be doing any further work on it (although several of its core topics will certainly reappear in different formats in future writings of mine), since my writing has changed a bit since its completion (see http://modernismunbound.com/), but I thought that I could upload it here anyway in case anyone wants to read it. Below is a brief outline to the thesis, and the full text can be found here.
Note to potential readers: Please keep in mind that most of this was written a couple of years ago (around 2014-2015), during the peak of new accelerationism, so some of it is actually (given how fast things move in those circles) already a bit outdated. In particular, there is a chapter on Nick Land that discusses the link between technology and negativity (i.e. technihilism) in his 90s work that was written before the alt-right controversy around him started to escalate, so consequently does not address that. And since I won’t be doing any further work on this text I have not made any changes to that or any other chapter. But it obviously goes without saying that I do not share those sympathies at all.
Over the past few decades it has become increasingly clear that the left is in desperate need of novel conceptual instruments to overcome the cultural and political vacuums of the present. Orthodox critical theory and postmodern theory may have correctly identified many of the failures and deadlocks of the contemporary world – yet have been unable to overcome and actually change things for the better. In particular, a widespread critical conservatism rooted in a dubious commitment to human authenticity in response to the emergence of late, global capitalism seems to form a particularly unfortunate conceptual obstacle in this context at the present. Yet over the past few years, a set of novel theoretical strands – known as “new accelerationism” and “new rationalism” among other things – have emerged, and taken on the ambitious task of renewing postmodern critical dogma according to deepened modern and progressively emancipatory principles. This thesis aims to contribute to this task at the intersection between the technological, the cognitive, the aesthetic, and the cultural.
Technihil is a contribution to cultural theory that explores the cultural implications of the natural sciences – cognitive neuroscience in particular – from the perspectives of new accelerationism, new rationalism, and an inhuman Prometheanism. It is well-known today that cultural theory – much like the critical theory and Continental philosophy it often is inspired by – usually has very little positive to say about the natural sciences. Cultural theorists often characterize the latter in terms of what the philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer refer to as instrumental rationality – a kind of anti-human, enlightenment-rationalism that is blind to its own irrationality and the mythical pattern of sacrifice that it is part of. For Adorno and Horkheimer, and for the many theorists that they have inspired, the Western belief in the authority of the natural sciences is the root-source to the barbarism of the contemporary world, and the massive structures of control that have emerged and handicapped mankind throughout the 20th century – including capitalism, Nazism, and the culture industry. Seen from this perspective, the natural sciences can only alienate man from his true self.
But as the natural sciences continue to make progress and the world in which we live becomes more and more dependent on advanced technology – while scientific fields such as cognitive neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and evolutionary biology are in the process of redrawing the classical understanding of man as a supernatural being – it becomes more and more obvious that this critical perspective no longer works. What is needed instead is a novel critical apparatus that not only is compatible with the natural sciences, but also is capable of utilizing them as conceptual foundation for the remaking of the world on the basis of wider emancipatory principles than those that have come to characterize global capitalism.
This thesis aims to present an outline to such a critical apparatus on the basis of cognitive, technological, aesthetic, and cultural perspectives. Its core argument is that the techno-scientific objectification of human cognition should not be understood as the cognitive pathology that Adorno and Horkheimer characterize it as, but as a principal foundation for a renewed understanding of what it means to be human – and that a new accelerationist, a new rationalist, and an inhuman Prometheanist perspective provide the wider conceptual foundations according to which this argument should be understood.